Iran-backed militia behind attack on Iraqi PM: Security officials, sources

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi escaped unhurt from the attack on his residence in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Nov 7, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BAGHDAD (REUTERS) - A drone attack that targeted the Iraqi prime minister on Sunday (Nov 7) was carried out by at least one Iranian-backed militia group, Iraqi security officials and militia sources said.

But the neighbouring Islamic Republic is unlikely to have sanctioned the attack as Teheran is keen to avoid a spiral of violence on its western border, the sources and independent analysts said.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi escaped unhurt when three drones carrying explosives were launched at his residence in Baghdad. Several of his bodyguards were injured.

The incident whipped up tensions in Iraq, where powerful Iran-backed paramilitaries are disputing the result of a general election last month that dealt them a crushing defeat at the polls and greatly reduced their strength in parliament.

Iraqi officials and analysts said the attack was meant as a message from militias that they are willing to resort to violence if excluded from the formation of a government, or if their grip on large areas of the state apparatus is challenged.

"It was a clear message of, 'We can create chaos in Iraq - we have the guns, we have the means'," said Hamdi Malik, a specialist on Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim militias at the Washington Institute.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Iran-backed militia groups did not immediately comment and the Iranian government did not respond to requests for comment.

Two regional officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said Teheran had knowledge about the attack before it was carried out, but that Iranian authorities had not ordered it.

"Iran did not plan it but Teheran also did not stop the group from carrying it out," one of the officials said, declining to name which group he was referring to.

Militia sources said the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards overseas Quds Force travelled to Iraq on Sunday after the attack to meet paramilitary leaders and urge them to avoid any further escalation of violence.

Two Iraqi security officials and three sources close to the militia groups, who spoke to Reuters on Monday on condition of anonymity, said the attack was committed by at least one of the Iran-aligned militias.

The two security officials said the Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq groups carried out the attack in tandem.

A militia source said that Kataib Hezbollah was involved and that he could not confirm the role of Asaib.

Neither group commented for the record.

Intra-Shi'ite tensions

The main winner from the election, Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is a rival of the Iran-backed groups who, unlike them, preaches Iraqi nationalism and opposes all foreign interference, including American and Iranian.

Malik said the drone strike indicated that the Iran-backed militias are positioning themselves in opposition to Sadr, who also boasts a militia - a scenario that would hurt Iran's influence and therefore would likely be opposed by Teheran.

"I don't think Iran wants a Shi'ite-Shi'ite civil war. It would weaken its position in Iraq and allow other groups to grow stronger," he said.

Many Iran-aligned militias have watched Sadr's political rise with concern, fearing he may strike a deal with Kadhemi and moderate Shi'ites allies, and even minority Sunni Muslims and Kurds, that would freeze them out of power.

The Iran-backed groups, which like patron Iran are Shi'ite, regard Kadhemi as both Sadr's man and friendly towards Tehran's arch-foe the United States.

Made in Iran

One of the Iraqi security officials said the drones used were of the "quadcopter" type and that each was carrying one projectile containing high explosives capable of damaging buildings and armoured vehicles.

The official added that these were the same type of Iranian-made drones and explosives used in attacks this year on US forces in Iraq, which Washington blames on Iran-aligned militias including Kataib Hezbollah.

The United States last month targeted Iran's drone programme with new sanctions, saying Teheran's elite Revolutionary Guards had deployed drones against US forces, Washington's regional allies and international shipping.

Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq are among the groups leading cries of fraud in the Oct 10 election, but have provided no evidence for their assertions.

The Iran-aligned groups lost dozens of parliamentary seats they had controlled for years in an election result that was seen as a rebuke to Iran-backed militias, which are accused of gunning down anti-government protesters in 2019 - a charge they deny.

Supporters of Iran-backed militias have since the election staged weeks of protests near Iraqi government buildings.

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