Helicopters circled the sky and armored vehicles cruised the streets of the Iraqi capital on Sunday, after a drone attack targeted the home of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
Officials in Iraq described the event as an attempted assassination.
Kadhimi wasn’t seriously hurt, but several of his guards were injured, according to media reports.
Experts say this is the first time since the US-led invasion of 2003 that a prime minister has been targeted in such a brazen and public way. It has raised concerns of an escalation of violence in the country.
Shortly after the news broke, in a televised message, Kadhimi reassured the public that he was safe. He called for calm, adding that one “can’t build a country or a future with cowardly rocket and drone attacks.”
Tensions were high in Iraq, even before Sunday’s drone strike.
Last Friday, Shiite political parties in Iraq — backed by Iran — held protests near Baghdad’s Green Zone, where politicians and foreign embassies are based.
Security forces fired at the protesters, killing and injuring several people.
Shiite parties and their supporters are disputing the results of last month’s parliamentary elections in Iraq.
Those parties suffered a major defeat, losing two-thirds of their seats in parliament.
“For [Shiite parties], this is a major problem, because not only is their legitimacy being completely undermined by the people, but also having less votes and less seats mean they might lose their access to the state itself. And if they lose access to the state, they will lose access to the resources from the state."
“For them, this is a major problem, because not only their legitimacy is being completely undermined by the people, but also having less votes and less seats mean they might lose their access to the state itself. And if they lose access to the state, they will lose access to the resources from the state,” said Zeinab Shuker, an Iraq analyst at Sam Houston State University.
In the past few years, Shiite parties close to Iran have faced setbacks, she said.
A drop in oil prices means less money going into government coffers. And then, there is ISIS, which has largely been defeated in Iraq. That means Iraqi Shiite militias have lost a big reason for their existence.
“So, what else? Right? There’s nothing else to kind of mobilize the Shia groups, the Shia population, to find an enemy,” Shuker said.
No enemy, less resources, less access to the parliament; and so now, these Shiite groups are rejecting the results of the last election.
Shuker sees the attack on the prime minister as a message to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite leader who’s been critical of Iran’s involvement in Iraq. His political party was the big winner in the recent election.
“It sends a message to al-Sadr that you should either include us in this government or we’re going to burn it all down,” she said.
No group has officially claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack. But just hours before the attack, Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, one of the Shiite groups, publicly threatened the prime minister.
“The blood of martyrs is to hold you accountable,” he said at the funeral of one of the protesters killed last Friday.
“The protesters only had one demand against fraud in elections. Responding [with live fire] means you are the first responsible for this fraud. […] Avenging the blood of the martyrs is our responsibility and we will do this by putting you on trial.”
Ruba Ali al-Hassani, a researcher at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, said this is the first time since the US-led invasion of 2003 that an Iraqi prime minister has been so directly targeted. And that the attack has become public.
Hassani has been following the reaction from Iraqis and she says people are worried about what comes next.
“Iraqis have tasted the bitterness of civil war and they don’t want it to happen again, but they do want accountability.”
“Iraqis have tasted the bitterness of civil war and they don’t want it to happen again,” she said, “but they do want accountability.”
She added that one question on the minds of many Iraqis is, “if the prime minister, with all the security, with all the military apparatus under his arms — he is the commander in chief — if he is unsafe, how safe is the average or poor Iraqi?”
Election officials have not officially announced the results of October’s election.
That needs to happen before a new government is put in place.
Following the attack, a flurry of condemnations poured in from around the world. Among them, President Joe Biden, who said he has instructed his national security team to offer help with the investigation.
“Rocket attacks aren’t a new development in Iraq, but during the time of government negotiation, that’s what makes it more dangerous.”
“Rocket attacks aren’t a new development in Iraq,” said Hamzeh Hadad, political analyst based in Baghdad, “but during the time of government negotiation, that’s what makes it more dangerous.”