The militant groups want a seat at the table, and are willing to apply whatever pressure it takes to ensure that they do.
In a somewhat ironic mirroring of how Israel used a machinegun drone to kill Iran’s most senior nuclear scientist, Tehran-backed Shia militias are suspected of using three drones laden with explosives in a botched assassination attempt against caretaker Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi over the weekend.
While Kadhimi was unharmed and two of the drones were shot down before they reached his official residence in Baghdad’s supposedly heavily fortified Green Zone, one of the drones did get through and caused damage to the residence and wounded some of Kadhimi’s security detail.
The attack can at once be characterised as a failed coup attempt, and as a pointed and explosive message to Kadhimi and anyone else deemed to be an impediment to the Shia militias' gangster rule in Iraq.
Callous ruthlessness dressed up in religion
While Kadhimi is not anti-Iran per se, he is a more subtle and pragmatic politician than many of those who preceded him. Despite his Shia political background, he does not engage in openly sectarian rhetoric, and at least pays lip service to holding the militias to account for their crimes. This is enough to make him suspicious in the eyes of the pro-Iran camp in the Iraqi political and security establishment, including amongst the Hashd al Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a formal branch of the armed forces.
Obviously, and despite the fact that his friend Hisham al Hashimi was murdered by Shia extremists in 2020 and the fact that he promised to pursue the killers who butchered hundreds of demonstrators from the 2019 protest movement, Kadhimi has spectacularly and repeatedly failed to rein in the militias and bring those responsible for breaching the nation’s peace to justice.
Not long after Hashimi’s murder, Kadhimi ordered the arrest of more than a dozen Shia militants and promised that they would be subjected to a full judicial inquiry into their criminality. Instead, a judge affiliated with the PMF ordered their release, citing a lack of evidence for prosecution. A year later, Kadhimi was besieged by armed pro-Iran militants who surrounded his home after he ordered the arrest of another senior PMF commander, Qasem Muslih. Again, Muslih was swiftly released without charge and resumed his command, as well as resuming the danger he posed to peaceful demonstrators he was accused of violently suppressing.
Although Kadhimi’s attempts failed, the fact he made these attempts at all meant that he needed to go. The PMF, represented by their political wings through the Fatah Coalition and others, thought that the elections in October this year would increase their sizeable representation in parliament and allow them to dictate who would be in the prime minister’s office. Instead, another Shia radical, Muqtada al Sadr, increased his share of the vote while the parties representing the militias saw the number of seats under their control plummet.
Since then, the so-called Shia coordination group, an ad hoc alliance of all Shia parties apart from Sadr, have contested the results of the elections, claiming fraud. But this is the very same system that these groups have been undermining for almost two decades to the point that Iraqis no longer have faith in any Iraqi democracy — only 41 percent of voters even bothered to turn out. Despite all their religious rhetoric about social justice and transparency, this turnout has been catastrophic for their propaganda as it shows people are no longer buying what they’re selling.
A bloody message
Of course, this is not to say that Sadr is the antithesis of the militias. He himself is a militia leader and is also close to Iran. In fact, the dispute between Sadr and the other Shia political groups can be likened to a sibling rivalry rather than archenemies going after one another. Both sides have been heavily mired in the corrupt political process, both sides have harmed and killed protesters, and both have raided the Green Zone whenever they felt politically threatened.
But the attempt on Kadhimi’s life is no idle threat, not only to the premier but also to the wider public. There are only a few groups who operate drones in Iraq, and there is absolutely no suggestion that this was Daesh’s doing.
It is therefore highly likely that the drones used were Iran-supplied, which would explain Esmail Ghaani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force turning up in Baghdad a day later to hold meetings with the government and the militias he influences. Although the purpose of his visit is not clear, he is likely to be wringing ears for such a stupid manoeuvre that risks mobilising political and societal forces against militia rule – militias Iran is trying to groom as Iraqi versions of its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon or even as reflections of the IRGC only in Iraq.
However, stupid or not, these militias are more than capable of drowning Iraq in blood. They are, after all, the same people who almost entirely razed Sunni Arab cities using the war against Daesh as an excuse to collectively punish all Sunnis.
During their reign of terror, they have perpetrated numerous atrocities and murdered thousands, including 643 men and children in Fallujah who, to this day, have never been found and their killers never brought to justice.
Such bloodthirsty militias would have no qualms at all about plunging Iraq into another civil war. They do not care if they have to kill a senior politician to do so, and will continue to destabilise Iraq, including by firing rockets at Turkish military bases to draw in regional ire. The PMF and other militants want a seat at the table, and are willing to apply whatever pressure it takes to ensure that they do.
Therefore, and bearing in mind the above, their message is quite a simple one – either the Iraqi system makes way for the pro-Iran Shia militants to continue their 17-year reign of tyranny unimpeded, or else they will mire Iraq in chaos and drown it and its people in blood.
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