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After Assassination Attempt, Iraqi PM Walks Tightrope Between Iran, U.S.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi meets with Iraqi security leaders after a drone attack on PM's residence in Baghdad, Iraq, yesterday.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi meets with Iraqi security leaders after a drone attack on PM's residence in Baghdad, Iraq, yesterday.Credit: REUTERS/Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout

It seems unlikely that any Iraqi prime minister has ever received as many good wishes and supportive letters and phone calls as Mustafa al-Kadhimi did, after almost being killed in an attempted assassination Saturday morning.

Al-Kadhimi’s house was heavily damaged and some of his bodyguards were wounded. Still, he radiated calm, urged the public to avoid confrontations and promised to investigate, find the guilty parties and put them on trial.

“We know who was behind this assassination attempt,” he said, ordering the army to close off the area from which the drones were launched. The Iraqi media have already reported that similar armed drones were used by whoever attacked American targets in Baghdad’s Green Zone last month.

The finger is currently being pointed at Shi’ite militias operating under Iran’s auspices, and the political circumstances bolster this suspicion. The militias and their political leaders were dealt a very severe blow in the parliamentary election on October 10. After the results were published, they had their activists stage stormy, violent demonstrations to demand a recount of all the votes, claiming suspicion of fraud.

The fact that Esmail Ghaani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, rushed to Baghdad to meet with the militia commanders Monday night is also no accident. Violent clashes don’t currently serve the interests of Tehran, which is trying to build a pro-Iran political coalition that could form a government.

This would seem to undercut the logic of the attempted assassination, unless the goal was to start a civil war or at least violent clashes nationwide, which might spur the formation of a temporary emergency government. But even if this were the motive, neither the militias nor Iran had any guarantee that they would achieve a political result that would serve their goals.

Iraqi soldiers take part in an intensive security deployment following a drone attack on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's residence in Baghdad, Iraq, yesterday.Credit: Thaier Al-Sudani/REUTERS

Al-Kadhimi, 54, is a lawyer by training. He fled Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and lived in exile in Germany and Britain, where he worked as a journalist. He then returned to Iraq after the American occupation in 2003 and served as head of Iraqi intelligence.

When he was appointed prime minister in May 2020, he received the blessing of both Tehran and Washington. His main assignment was to prepare the country for elections after his predecessor, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, resigned following a series of violent demonstrations that erupted in late 2019. Those protests resulted in hundreds of people being killed and thousands wounded.

Despite having forged close ties with the U.S. administration, Al-Kadhimi has had to walk a tightrope among Iraqi, American and Iranian interests. On one hand, he had to implement parliamentary legislation requiring the government to end the U.S. presence in Iraq. On the other, he had to fight the intimidating power of the pro-Iranian militias, but without rupturing relations with Iran, which is Iraq’s most important trading partner. Iraq imports about 40 percent of what it consumes from Iran, including electricity, water and gasoline.

He successfully concluded the negotiations with Washington, thanks primarily to the fact that both former U.S. President Donald Trump and the current president, Joe Biden, wanted to bring the troops home. But after the final withdrawal of American forces, which is expected to take place by the end of this year, the Iraqi government will be left with an army comprised of several disparate parts and that may not be sufficiently well-trained to tackle domestic threats, including a renewal of terrorist attacks by the Islamic State.

Al-Kadhimi has taken a hard line against the militias, which were integrated into the Iraqi army and benefit from a dedicated budget totaling about $2 billion. He even had militiamen who broke the law arrested. He also fired senior army officers suspected of being too close to the militias and removed the national security advisor, Falih al-Fayyadh, who had spent 10 years on the job while simultaneously commanding some of the Shi’ite militias.

But Al-Kadhimi hasn’t really succeeded in meeting ordinary Iraqis’ basic demands – creating more jobs, ensuring a regular water supply and eradicating the governmental corruption that has put Iraq at the top of the list of the world’s most corrupt countries. And now that he is serving as a caretaker prime minister, he has even less power to implement economic and governmental reforms.

Consequently, even the probe of the assassination attempt against him will be subject to a complex web of interests and pressures that, as in Lebanon, could thwart the attempt to find the guilty parties and put them on trial. This is a political knot that even the recent election will have trouble untying, thereby giving Iraq an opportunity to extricate itself from its crises.

The political battle taking place now, which is likely to continue for weeks or even months, centers on building a coalition that can run the country, appointing a prime minister and agreeing on a president. According to the constitution, the latter must be Kurdish.

The composition of the joint tickets that ran in the last election won’t necessarily match the composition of the new government. There’s still no agreed-on candidate for prime minister, and even the Kurds haven’t yet decided whom they will choose as president.

Conflicting regional and international interests are involved in this battle. After America withdraws its troops, it may also lose its centers of political influence if a pro-Iranian government is formed or if the new prime minister is someone who bows to Iranian dictates. And Washington’s hope that Shi’ite separatist leader Muqtada al-Sadr will prevent the formation of such a government is cold comfort, because Al-Sadr objects to U.S. involvement in his country no less than he does to Iranian involvement.

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr waves from a car in Najaf, as Iraqis go to the polls to vote in the parliamentary election, in Iraq, last month.Credit: Alaa Al-Marjani/REUTERS

Tehran, for its part, is aware of Iraqis’ anti-Iranian sentiment and their hostility to its involvement in their country. But for Iran, Iraq is the most important country in the region, even more so than Lebanon.

It has managed to entrench itself there economically, politically and militarily and thereby acquire the status of a regional power. Consequently, it must ensure that whatever government is formed doesn’t tilt instead toward Saudi Arabia, which could take over its levers of economic influence in Iraq.

These clashing interests, combined with local power struggles and the economic crisis, are the permanent foundations of Iraq’s instability. And they won’t disappear just because a new government is established and a prime minister is appointed.

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