Iraqi prime minister survives assassination bid with drones

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt with armed drones that targeted his residence early Sunday and officials said he was unharmed. This attack came amid rising tensions caused by refusals of Iran-backed militias last month to accept the results of last month’s parliamentary elections.

Two Iraqi officials told The Associated Press that seven of al-Kadhimi’s security guards were injured in the attack with two armed drones which occurred in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone area. Because they weren’t authorized to make official statements, the officials spoke under condition of anonymity.

“I am fine and among my people. The prime minister quickly tweeted “Thank God” shortly after the attack. He called for calm and restraint, “for the sake of Iraq.”

He later appeared on Iraqi television, seated behind a desk in a white shirt, looking calm and composed. He said that drone and cowardly rocket attacks do not build homes or provide a path to the future.

In a statement, the government said an explosives-laden drone tried to hit al-Kadhimi’s home. Baghdad residents heard a loud explosion and heavy gunfire coming from the Green Zone. This Green Zone is home to foreign embassies as well as government offices.

The statement released by state-run media said security forces were “taking the necessary measures in connection with this failed attempt.”

“The assassination attempt is a dramatic escalation, crossing a line in unprecedented fashion that may have violent reverberations,” wrote Ranj Alaaldin, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a post on Twitter.

Protests turned deadly Friday when the demonstrators tried to enter the Green Zone. Live ammunition and tear gas were used by security forces. One protester associated with militias was shot and killed in an exchange of gunfire. Dozens were hurt by security forces. Al-Khadimi directed an investigation into the circumstances of Friday’s clashes, and to find out who broke orders to not open fire.

Some of the leaders of the most powerful militia factions loyal to Iran openly blamed al-Kadhimi for Friday’s clashes and the protester’s death.

“The blood of martyrs is to hold you accountable,” said Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, addressing al-Kadhimi at a funeral held for the protester Saturday. The protesters had only one demand: fraud in elections. Responding like this (with live fire) means you are the first responsible for this fraud.”

The funeral was attended by leaders of the mostly Shiite Iran-backed factions who together are known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic.

Abu Alaa al-Walae, commander of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, in a tweet apparently addressed to al-Kadhimi that did not name him told him to forget about another term.

Al-Kadhimi, 54, was Iraq’s former intelligence chief before becoming prime minister in May last year. The militias consider him to be close to America and he has attempted to reconcile Iraq’s allies with Iran and the U.S. In an effort to reduce tensions in the region, he held several talks in Baghdad between Iranian and Saudi Arabian foes prior to the election.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s national security council, said indirectly in a tweet Sunday that the United States was behind the attack.

The attack on al-Kadhimi “is a new sedition that must be traced back to foreign think tanks, which have brought nothing but insecurity, discord & instability to oppressed Iraqi people through creation & support of terrorist groups & occupation of this country for years,” he said.

The U.S. strongly denounced the attack.

“This apparent act of terrorism, which we strongly condemn, was directed at the heart of the Iraqi state,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

“We are in close touch with the Iraqi security forces charged with upholding Iraq’s sovereignty and independence and have offered our assistance as they investigate this attack,” he added.

The United States, the U.N. Security Council and others have praised the Oct. 10 election, which was mostly violence-free and without major technical glitches.

But following the vote, militia supporters pitched tents near the Green Zone, rejecting the election results and threatening violence unless their demands for a recount were met.

The unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud have cast a shadow over the vote. This standoff has increased tensions between rival Shiite groups, which could lead to violence and undermine Iraq’s relative stability.

The election was held months ahead of schedule in response to mass protests in late 2019, which saw tens of thousands in Baghdad and predominantly Shiite southern provinces rally against endemic corruption, poor services and unemployment. The protestors also voiced their disapproval at Iran’s interference in Iraqi affairs via Iran-backed militias.

The militias lost some popularity since the 2018 vote, when they made big election gains. Many hold them responsible for suppressing the 2019 protests, and for challenging the state’s authority.

The biggest gains were made by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who won the largest number of parliament seats, 73 out of 329. Al-Sadr, while maintaining good relations with Iran and supporting the country’s sovereignty, publicly opposed external interference.

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