The three drones that targeted the residence of the Iraqi prime minister on Sunday were sent to deliver a clear message to the heart of Baghdad’s state power: it is not through the ballot box alone that power is wielded in Iraq.
The prime minister was slightly injured by the explosion and remained defiant: we know the perpetrators very well, he said in a televised address the same day, and we will pursue them.
In truth, however, the perpetrators scarcely intended to hide their identities. Although no-one has claimed responsibility, multiple intelligence sources pointed to the Iran-backed Shia militias. These militias not only have access to armed drones, but have used them in previous attacks.
They also have a record of personal animus towards Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, a prime minister who has tried to rein in their considerable power. After losing seats in October’s election, the militias have gone to considerable lengths to demonstrate their power, staging a mass protest on the streets of Baghdad that turned deadly after clashes with police. For them, drone attacks and mass protests are not merely a means of challenging state power; they are in fact the continuation of politics by other means.
Sunday’s attack wasn’t the first time the militias have sought to flex their muscles.
Even since the Fatah political coalition, which functions as the political arm of the militias, slumped from the second-largest bloc in the previous parliament to just 17 seats in October’s election, they have been claiming fraud, convinced the vote was rigged against them. Monitoring groups have found no evidence, but the militias organized a mass protest last Friday, two days before the attempted assassination. The protesters marched on the Green Zone and two were killed when security forces fired on them to stop them entering government offices. Barely 48 hours later, Al-Kadhimi’s residence was attacked.
The militias, of course, were taking aim at the Iraqi state itself with this attack, but the prime minister himself is locked into tit-for-tat shows of force with the Popular Mobilization Forces, as the armed groups are collectively known. He sends a message, and they send a message.
Over the summer, he arrested Qasim Muslih, the head of the PMF in Anbar, western Iraq. Powerful figures like Muslih usually operate with impunity, so the arrest was seen as a major attempt to curb their power. In response, heavily-armed militia fighters took to the streets of Baghdad and took over an entrance to the Green Zone. It was a message to Al-Kadhimi that the state does not solely run Iraq.
Two weeks later, Muslih was released – but, depending on your perspective, a powerful message had been sent. After all, when Al-Kadhimi had tried the same thing a year earlier, arresting 14 fighters, they were released within hours, again after a show of force from the militias.
Protesters storming foreign embassies and the drone attack are the latest round. Ostensibly, the protesters were alleging electoral fraud. But the real reason was the same as the drone attack: a show of force to demonstrate to Al-Kadhimi and the government that, even if these groups lost political power at the election, they still retain popular support – or at the least the ability to bring hundreds on to the streets – and hard power, in the form of drones and armed fighters.
As post-election negotiations continue over the formation of a new government, the militias want to ensure that Al-Kadhimi – or, had the attack on Sunday been successful, his successor – understood that their interests had to be taken into account, regardless of what the votes say.
The central problem is that Iraq has rival power centres, each able to exert both popular and military power. This is a problem that predates Al-Kadhimi; indeed it is a problem that predates the formation of the PMF.
Muqtada Al-Sadr, both a religious and political leader, emerged as the winner of last month’s parliamentary election. But during the American occupation, he was a perennial thorn in the side of the US, unwilling to accept diktats from Baghdad and fighting American troops. His transformation into a nationalist politician – one who warned after the attempted assassination that Iraq could return “to a state of chaos…controlled by non-state forces” – doesn’t change the fact that in addition to holding sway over the Sadrist movement, he also commands a paramilitary organization, the Peace Brigades. That gives him influence beyond the ballot box.
The same is true, of course, of Iran, which backs the militias. So concerned was Iran that blame not be placed at its door, that it dispatched the commander of its elite Quds Force to Baghdad within hours of the attack to personally meet Al-Kadhimi and deny any connection to Tehran. Yet its support for militias that are not controlled by the Iraqi state continues.
Successive Iraqi prime ministers have tried to rein in the power of these militias, but to little avail. Al-Kadhimi’s predecessor Adel Abdul Mahdi tried to force the militias to abandon their military headquarters around the country; he was ignored. The prime minister before him, Haider Al-Abadi, tried to drag the militias under the umbrella of the national security forces; he, too, was ignored.
The tragedy of the militia’s twisted demonstrations of political power is that, in some way, they serve their purposes. Al-Kadhimi’s measured response on Sunday before the Council of Ministers that he would “expose” the perpetrators is a recognition that he lacks the ability to genuinely fight them – a reality unchanged by the expressions of support from countries abroad. The last thing Iraq needs is a civil war between rival political factions and their militias.
The attempted assassination of Iraq’s prime minister may be an escalation, but it is one very much in keeping with the militias’ attempts to use non-political means to express their political power. Having failed to convince Iraqis through the ballot box, they have turned to street protests and assassinations. Such extraordinary actions are fast becoming business as usual in Iraq’s politics.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.