Updated November 7, 2021, 12:16 a.m.ET
BAGHDAD – Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi survived an assassination attempt with armed drones that targeted his residence early on Sunday and officials said he was unharmed. The attack was a major escalation amid tensions sparked by the refusal of Iranian-backed militias to accept the results of last month’s parliamentary elections.
Two Iraqi officials told The Associated Press that seven of al-Kadhimi’s security guards were injured in the attack with two armed drones that took place in the heavily fortified Green Zone of Baghdad. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to make official statements.
“I am well and among my people. Thank God,” the prime minister tweeted shortly after the attack. He called for calm and restraint, “for the sake of Iraq.”
He later appeared on Iraqi television, sitting behind a desk in a white shirt, looking calm and collected. “Cowardly rocket and drone attacks don’t build homelands and build a future,” he said.
In a statement, the government said a drone loaded with explosives attempted to strike al-Kadhimi’s house. Residents of Baghdad heard the sound of an explosion followed by heavy gunfire from the green zone, which houses foreign embassies and government offices.
The statement released by state media said that the security forces “were taking the necessary measures in connection with this failed attempt.”
The attack was not immediately claimed. It comes amid a standoff between security forces and pro-Iranian Shiite militias whose supporters have camped outside the Green Zone for nearly a month after rejecting the results of the Iraqi legislative elections in which they have lost about two-thirds of their seats.
“The assassination attempt is a dramatic escalation, crossing a line in an unprecedented way that can have violent reverberations,” Ranj Alaaldin, a non-resident member of the Brookings Institution, wrote in a Twitter post.
The protests turned deadly on Friday when protesters attempted to enter the green zone. Security forces used tear gas and live ammunition. There was an exchange of gunfire in which a protester affiliated with the militias was killed. Dozens of security forces were injured. Al-Khadimi ordered an investigation to determine what sparked the clashes and who violated orders not to open fire.
Some of the most powerful faction leaders in militias loyal to Iran openly blamed al-Kadhimi for Friday’s clashes and the protester’s death.
“The blood of the martyrs must hold you accountable,” said Qais al-Khazali, militia leader Asaib Ahl al-Haq, addressing al-Kadhimi at the protester’s funeral on Saturday. “Protesters had only one claim against election fraud. Responding like this (with live fire) means you are primarily responsible for this fraud.”
The funeral was attended by leaders of the predominantly Shiite factions backed by Iran who together are known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic.
Abu Alaa al-Walae, commander of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, in a tweet apparently addressed to al-Kadhimi who did not name him, told him to forget another term.
Al-Kadhimi, 54, was the former Iraqi intelligence chief before becoming prime minister in May last year. He is seen by the militias as close to the United States and has attempted to balance Iraq’s alliances with the United States and Iran. Ahead of the elections, he organized several rounds of talks between regional enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia in Baghdad with the aim of easing regional tensions.
The United States strongly denounced the attack.
“This apparent act of terrorism, which we strongly condemn, was directed at the heart of the Iraqi state,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
“We are in close contact with the Iraqi security forces responsible for maintaining Iraq’s sovereignty and independence and have offered our assistance in the investigation of this attack,” he added.
The United States, the UN Security Council and others have praised the October 10 elections, which were conducted for the most part without violence and without major technical problems.
But after the vote, militia supporters pitched tents near the Green Zone, rejecting the election results and threatening to resort to violence unless their demands for a recount are met.
Unfounded allegations of electoral fraud cast a shadow over the vote. The standoff with militia supporters has also heightened tensions between rival Shiite factions that could escalate into violence and threaten Iraq’s regained relative stability.
The election came months ahead of schedule in response to mass protests in late 2019, which saw tens of thousands in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite southern provinces rally against rampant corruption, mediocrity services and unemployment. They also protested against neighboring Iran’s brutal interference in Iraqi affairs through Iranian-backed militias.
The militias have lost some popularity since the 2018 vote, when they made big electoral gains. Many hold them responsible for cracking down on the 2019 protests and challenging state authority.
The biggest gains were made by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who won the most seats in parliament, 73 out of 329. Although he has good relations with Iran, al- Sadr publicly opposes outside interference in Iraqi affairs.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.