What lies behind assassination attempt on Iraq’s prime minister?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Iraq, one of only two Arab countries, along with Jordan, to be invited to next month’s “Summit for Democracy,” has been rocked by violence. Last week’s assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi underscored for many in the region Iraq’s fragility and the outsized role that militias and other armed factions continue to play, more than 15 years since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. Early indications point to Iran-backed groups as the likely perpetrators, although Mr. Kadhimi’s attempts to steer Iraq toward a middle ground, away from the influence of its neighbors, have ensured that he has plenty of enemies. 

The attack on Mr. Kadhimi is said to have been facilitated by the use of small drones loaded with explosives. The Iraqi prime minister has indicated that he knows who stands behind the attack, yet he has refused so far to identify them. That has not stopped some in the region, including Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman, from concluding that, given the complex nature of the attack, the most likely culprit is Iran: “[A] drone attack on the home of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi represents a major escalation in the region. It represents the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles, primarily by Iranian-backed groups, to spread terror throughout the Middle East. It also represents the increased use of drones as a strategic weapon, in this case, with the goal of intimidating the Iraqi prime minister just days after security forces clashed with pro-Iranian protesters. … Since January, the pro-Iran militias in Iraq have increasingly used drones to target US forces. This has occurred even in Erbil, where the pro-Iran militias used a drone in the spring of 2021 to target what US media called, at the time, a CIA hangar at Erbil airport. Pro-Iran groups have done parades with drones.” 

Mohammed Al-Sulami, president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies, writing for Arab News, argues that Iran’s motivation in supporting or openly encouraging the attempt on the Iraqi PM’s life is connected to Iran’s desire to keep Iraq firmly under its control: “There is also growing concern in Tehran about possible imminent changes in Iraq that could negatively impact its influence in the country, especially after the heavy losses suffered by the pro-Iran alliances in last month’s parliamentary election. The election results indicate a growing awareness among the Iraqi electorate, particularly about the dangerous sectarian role played by Iran in Iraq via supporting armed militias — as well as a growing awareness about the vital need to prioritize Iraq’s own interests before others through rallying around cross-sectarian political forces, prioritizing Iraq’s civilization, and bringing Baghdad back to the Arab sphere.” 

Many believe that the outcome of last month’s parliamentary elections, which resulted in significant losses for the pro-Iranian camp, have not set well with Tehran, resulting in the desperate measures witnessed over the last few weeks, including violent protests, which, as Al Jazeera has reported, “have turned violent in Baghdad, with demonstrators denouncing ‘fraud’ clashing with security forces outside the capital’s high-security Green Zone. Supporters of pro-Iranian groups, which suffered large losses in the polls, threw stones at security forces, who fired tear gas and shot in the air to disperse the crowd. … The results of the October 10 parliamentary vote showed that a bloc led by influential Muslim Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr won 73 seats, maintaining its position as the largest group in Iraq’s 329-strong parliament. The Conquest (Fatah) Alliance, the political arm of the multiparty Hashd al-Shaabi, a pro-Iranian former paramilitary force, won about 15 seats, according to preliminary results. In the last parliament, it held 48, making it the second-largest bloc.” 

The Iranians, for their part, have been quick to point their fingers in the other direction, accusing Israel and the United States of attempting to destabilize Iraq’s relationship with Iran. According to a PressTV interview with Iraqi resistance leader Qais al-Khazali, secretary-general of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq movement, a subdivision of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), “The Israeli regime and the United States were likely behind the recent failed assassination attempt targeting the Arab country’s prime minister. … Khazali said, among existing theories that were trying to explain the Sunday development, he would lend more credit to the one that holds the Zionist regime responsible for carrying out the operation in coordination with the United States. … Recently, the spokesman for the Iraqi Joint Operations Command raised questions about the inactivation of the US military’s C-RAM systems — used to detect and destroy incoming rockets and flying objects — during the attack on the Iraqi prime minister’s residence.”  

Albawaba’s Marwan Asmar agrees that the Iranian connection is the most likely scenario, but he urges caution and patience for the final conclusion of the investigation. The use of drones, according to Asmar raises another possibility: that supporters of the so-called Islamic State may be behind the attack: “To say Iran may be behind the attack even under their proxies might be facile, to say the least. One culprit that continues to lurk in the background, and which no one is talking about however, is ISIS. … After all, their deadly hand has risen in the past few years despite the fact they were supposed to be finished in Iraq and Syria from back in 2018. However, they have carried out periodic deadly attacks since then, mainly in the north of the country but have not really ventured towards the capital, largely because of the security forces and the militias. After all, their ‘pockets of resistance’ still continue and at times with stiff, sharp blows. So, take your pick. Despite speculation, one thing is certain: an investigation into the life of the prime minister must be total and carried out seriously to get to the bottom of who is behind the latest attack. “

For Ghassan Charbel, editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, Mr. Kadhimi’s reforms and attempts to craft an independent foreign policy were always going to increase the risk of his being targeted by those unhappy with the direction of the country. In particular, Mr. Kadhimi’s “insistence on keeping Iraq as a regional arena explains the use of drones in the attempt to assassinate Kadhimi, who resides on the Iranian-American earthquake line. Fortunately for the Iraqis and the friends of Iraq, the attempt did not succeed. It is obvious that Arab and international reactions will double the isolation of those who use the dictionary of bombs and assassinations, but this does not mean that they will not try other means. After the elections, Iraq stands at a crossroads. The new government will either pursue the restoration of the state project or concede to the logic of the arena. Kadhimi, for his part, committed the crime of awakening the state project, a crime that deserves the people’s praise and the militias’ severe punishment.” 

Osama Al-Sharif, a journalist and political commentator based in Amman, as well as a long-time contributor to Arab News, cautions the Iraqi PM to choose his next steps wisely, as he attempts to navigate around the treacherous issues and alliances that may ultimately undo Iraq’s progress over the next few years: “Al-Kadhimi now has few choices if he is to survive politically and keep his country from sinking into a dark chapter of political assassinations and possible civil war. He must find a way to neutralize and contain the PMU and other militant groups that are subservient to Iran. It is a bold challenge that may fail. The entire region is sick and tired of Iran’s meddling and its disruptive regional agenda. The coming days and weeks will be crucial for Iraq, and any move the prime minister makes will be met with a fierce reaction. His success or otherwise in taking on the pro-Iran militias will determine the future of Iraq as a sovereign country.” 

Finally, while the Iraqi prime minister has tried to project a calm image following the assassination attempt, The National’s editorial is less sanguine about Iraq’s prospects, calling on the international community to stand by Iraq’s side at this delicate moment: “Mr. Al-Kadhimi will need all the support he can get from the international community, which must be bold in calling out the role of militias in stoking tensions, along with their Iranian backers. In the case of western powers, words help but are quickly rendered useless if more is not made of the crisis in ongoing nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna. The progress of those talks will determine whether Iran is pressured into reining in its proxies. If the attempted assassination of a prime minister who enjoys broad international support is linked to groups actively supported by Tehran, then surely trust will be broken. Failing to acknowledge this would destabilize Iraq at an already fraught moment.” 


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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