Tensions rise after Iraqi PM survives assassination attempt

(AP) - Troops deployed around Baghdad on Sunday following a failed assassination attempt that targeted the residence of Iraq’s prime minister with armed drones.

The attack significantly ramped up tensions sparked by the refusal of Iran-backed militias to accept last month’s parliamentary election results.

Seven of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s security guards were injured in the attack by at least two armed drones in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone area, according to two Iraqi officials.

Mr al-Kadhimi was unharmed, and later appeared on Iraqi television, seated behind a desk in a white shirt, looking calm and composed. His left hand appeared to be wrapped in a bandage, and an aide confirmed he had suffered a light cut.

“Cowardly rocket and drone attacks don’t build homelands and don’t build a future,” he said.

FILE - Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi poses in his office during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, July 23, 2021. The Iraqi government says Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has survived an assassination attempt with an armed drone and is unharmed. In a statement released Sunday, Nov. 7, the government said the drone tried to hit al-Kadhimi’s home in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone area. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)
FILE - Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi poses in his office during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, July 23, 2021. The Iraqi government says Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has survived an assassination attempt with an armed drone and is unharmed. In a statement released Sunday, Nov. 7, the government said the drone tried to hit al-Kadhimi’s home in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone area. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)

Later on Sunday, he received Iraqi President Barham Salih and headed a government security meeting.

Residents of Baghdad heard the sound of an explosion followed by heavy gunfire from the direction of the Green Zone, which houses foreign embassies and government offices. Handout photos showed the damage in Mr al-Kadhimi’s residence, including smashed windows and doors blown off their hinges.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, but suspicion immediately fell on Iran-backed militias who had been publicly attacking Mr al-Kadhimi and issuing threats.

It came amid a stand-off between security forces and the pro-Iran Shiite 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 lost around two-thirds of their seats.

“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 the Brookings Institution, in a post on Twitter.

This photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office shows the damage of the drone attack at the home of Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt with armed drones that targeted his residence early Sunday and officials said he escaped unharmed. (Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office via AP)
This photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office shows the damage of the drone attack at the home of Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt with armed drones that targeted his residence early Sunday and officials said he escaped unharmed. (Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office via AP)

Protests turned deadly on Friday when the demonstrators tried to enter the Green Zone. Security forces used tear gas and live ammunition. There was an exchange of fire in which one protester affiliated with the militias was killed, Dozens of security forces were injured.

Mr al-Khadimi ordered an investigation to determine what sparked the clashes and who violated orders not to open fire.

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.

“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 at a funeral held for the protester on Saturday.

“The protesters only had one demand against 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 Mobilisation Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic.

Mr al-Khazali, in a statement on Sunday, suggested the militias were being framed, calling for an investigation and for the punishment of the perpetrators.

This photo provided by the Iraqi Prime Minister's Media Office shows the aftermath of an assassination attempt at the home of Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. Al-Kadhimi survived the assassination attempt with armed drones that targeted his residence early Sunday and officials said he escaped unharmed. The attack was a major escalation amid tensions sparked by the refusal of Iran-backed militias to accept last month's parliamentary election results. (Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office, via AP)
This photo provided by the Iraqi Prime Minister's Media Office shows the aftermath of an assassination attempt at the home of Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. Al-Kadhimi survived the assassination attempt with armed drones that targeted his residence early Sunday and officials said he escaped unharmed. The attack was a major escalation amid tensions sparked by the refusal of Iran-backed militias to accept last month's parliamentary election results. (Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office, via AP)

The 54-year-old was Iraq’s intelligence chief before becoming prime minister in May last year. He is considered by the militias to be close to the US, and has tried to strike a balance between Iraq’s alliances with both the US and Iran.

Prior to the elections, he hosted several rounds of talks between regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia in Baghdad in a bid to ease regional tensions.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh in a briefing on Sunday condemned the assassination attempt onMr al-Khadimi and indirectly blamed the US. He said to be aware of “the conspiracies that target the security and progress of Iraq”, without elaborating.

Mr Khatibzadeh said such incidents “are in the interests of those parties that have invaded the stability, security, independence and territorial integrity of Iraq over the past 18 years”.

The USstrongly denounced the attack.

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

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi also condemned the assassination attempt. Writing on Facebook, he called on all sides in Iraq to “calm down, renounce violence and join forces to preserve the country’s stability”.

Saudi Arabia issued a statement of support for stability in Iraq and said it strongly condemned the “cowardly terrorist attack that targeted Iraq’s prime minister”.

The US, the UN Security Council and others have praised the October 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. The stand-off with the militia supporters has also increased tensions among rival Shiite factions that could spill into violence and threaten Iraq’s newfound 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. They also protested against the heavy-handed interference of neighbouring Iran in Iraq’s affairs through Iran-backed militias.

The militias have 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. While he maintains good relations with Iran, he publicly opposes external interference in Iraq’s affairs.