Iraq’s prime minister narrowly escaped an “assassination attempt” early yesterday when three explosive-laden drones targeted his home in Baghdad, marking what experts called an “unprecedented” escalation in political violence.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but the attack bore all the hallmarks of others carried out by Iran-linked groups this year.
Gunfire rang out and smoke rose from the Green Zone after the drone strike, which the premier’s office labelled a “failed assassination attempt”.
“Cowardly rocket and drone attacks don’t build homelands and don’t build a future,” Mustafa al-Kadhimi said in a video a few hours after the attack. “Praise God, I am fine.”
Photographs issued by his office showed debris strewn on the ground below a damaged exterior stairway and a door that had been dislodged. Seven bodyguards were reportedly wounded.
Barham Salih, Iraq’s president, called it an attempted “coup against the constitutional system” and said the country “must not be dragged into chaos”. Troops were soon deployed across Baghdad.
Washington condemned the “apparent act of terrorism”, with Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, saying the attack was “directed at the heart of the Iraqi state”.
British foreign secretary Liz Truss said the UK stood with the Iraqi government to reject political violence, “and strongly support the prime minister’s call for calm and restraint”.
Two of the drones were intercepted and an investigation is now under way.
“There is no doubt in the government that this was either the work of Asaib Ahl al-Haq or Kataeb Hezbollah,” a government source said, naming the two main Iran-backed militias in Iraq.
The attack came amid a stand-off between security forces and pro-Iran Shia militias, whose supporters have been camped outside the Green Zone for nearly a month after they rejected the results of Iraq’s parliamentary elections, in which they were the biggest losers.
On Friday, protests by these supporters turned violent as they pelted police with stones, injuring several officers. The police responded with tear gas and live gunfire, killing at least one demonstrator.
“The assassination attempt is a dramatic escalation, crossing a line in unprecedented fashion that may have violent reverberations,” wrote Ranj Alaaldin, a non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution, in a post on Twitter.
The United States, the UN Security Council and others have praised the October 10 election, which was mostly violence-free and without major technical glitches.
The use of low-yield explosive-laden drones has been a hallmark of attacks from Iran-linked groups since February and has created a new dynamic for the militias, Patrick Osgood, an analyst at Control Risks, said.
However, targeting the prime minister was “unprecedented”, he added.
“It marks a low for Iraq in terms of the extent to which political violence is used to drive political outcomes,” he said.
“Iran-backed paramilitary groups are attempting – through escalating threats of force – to influence the government formation process and effectively nullify the results of the election.
“In terms of the mindset and the risk tolerance of these militia groups when they consider using [drones] for the purpose of political violence, it opens up new avenues for the types of attacks they think they can do. It also gives them less deniability: it identifies them quite squarely.”
Some of the leaders of the most powerful militia factions loyal to Iran openly blamed Mr al-Kadhimi for Friday’s clashes and the protester’s death.
Many of the faction leaders, who together are known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, converged on the funeral held for the protester Saturday.
“The blood of martyrs is to hold you accountable,” said Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, addressing Mr al-Kadhimi in recorded comments to supporters.
“The protesters only had one demand against fraud in elections. Responding (with live fire) means you are the first responsible for this fraud.”
Yesterday several faction leaders dismissed the assassination attempt, suggesting it may be staged. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021; Independent News Service)