Iraq election: How a failed assassination attempt could break the political deadlock

The attempted killing of the Iraqi prime minister looks set to transform the post-election landscape. European engagement could prove valuable, but it will need to strike the right balance between urgency and caution.

Members of the riot police stand in the vicinity of the Green Zone after a failed attempt to assassinate Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad, Iraq, on Nov. 7, 2021. (Xinhua/Khalil Dawood)
Image by picture alliance / Xinhua News Agency | Khalil Dawood
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An attempt to assassinate the Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, could break the political deadlock gripping the country since its parliamentary election in October. In the early hours of Sunday morning, attackers launched three explosive-laden drones against Kadhimi’s residence, located in the heavily fortified green zone in Baghdad. Iraqi Security Forces shot down two of the drones, but the third hit the prime minister’s residence. Kadhimi was unhurt, but several members of his security detail sustained light injuries. He has since benefited from a groundswell of international, regional, and to some extent domestic support; and his conciliatory and statesmanlike reaction has weakened the credibility of his chief opponents and strengthened his ability to retain the premiership.

The assault followed the killing of two protesters demonstrating against the outcome of the election that took place on 10 October; one of those killed was a senior figure in the hardline political group Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Political entities closely aligned with armed factions in Iraq fared poorly in the election, largely because of their failure to strategise to maximise votes in the context of a new electoral system. Protests against the result turned violent on 5 November when demonstrators attempted to storm the green zone, prompting the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq to issue threats against the prime minister.

The shocking events laid bare the limits of Iran’s control over the armed groups that it supports in Iraq

Sunday’s attack could fracture the coalition of groups that reject the election result. More mainstream political actors such as the leader of the State of Law coalition, Nouri al-Maliki, and the leader of the Badr political party, Hadi al-Ameri, are likely to fear that their association with extreme armed groups such as Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah will undermine their credibility in the eyes of the Iraqi public. This could bring an end to the protests and lead to more constructive engagement in government formation negotiations.

The shocking events also laid bare the limits of Iran’s control over the armed groups that it supports in Iraq, and may lead Tehran to do more to restrain the most extreme factions. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force is now likely to work harder to check their activities and may reduce their access to drone technology. Iranian control over Iraq’s armed groups has significantly weakened since the January 2020 assassination of Qasim Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force and de facto leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units, a coalition of armed groups that were absorbed by the Iraqi state during the war against the Islamic State group. Following the residence attack, the new commander of the Quds Force – General Email Ga’ani – rushed to Baghdad to strongly condemn the action and to make clear to Iraqi armed groups that the strike crossed Iranian red lines.

Kadhimi’s political star may also rise in part thanks to the way he has responded in recent days, appealing for calm and quickly identifying the culprits. He has met with representatives from across the political spectrum, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, and has reportedly struck an agreement to prosecute those who carried out the attack on his residence in return for prosecuting those responsible for the deaths of the two protesters. Kadhimi has also received strong international support, and obtained reassurances from the Iranians that they will accept whoever Iraqis choose as their next prime minister. These developments could soften the attitudes of hardline groups, which previously categorially rejected a second term for the premier.

The direction of negotiations to form a new government now depend on the attitude of Shi’ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, whose party won the greatest share of votes in the election. Sadr has spoken of his desire to move away from the model of national unity governments that has dominated Iraq’s political system since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Such governments have tended to distribute power to a wide range of political actors from different ethno-sectarian backgrounds in order to avoid outbreaks of violence that could come from political exclusion. These administrations, however, have failed to deliver services to the Iraqi public and have fallen prey to extremely corrupt practices as political actors seek to extract as much as possible from the state while no single political party can be held responsible for the government’s actions.

Sadr claims that he can upend this failed system of government by forming a more restricted governing coalition, leaving other political parties to act as an opposition within parliament. The parties that fared poorly in the parliamentary election, which, as noted, also happen to be linked to armed groups, reject this approach to government formation. They fear that being cut out of government will starve them of the resources they need to fund their extensive patronage networks and maintain their political machinery. This is now the primary impasse in the government formation negotiations, and it remains to be seen whether a compromise will be struck that prevents armed factions from disrupting the peace while also providing the possibility of a more effective government in Baghdad.

European governments should exercise extreme caution in their diplomatic efforts at this delicate time. They should engage with political actors across the spectrum to urge constructive efforts towards the creation of a new government, working to identify potential compromise solutions. Crucially, they will need to avoid accusations of trying to intervene in domestic Iraqi political affairs. European efforts could prove especially valuable because of the United States’ reduced ability to engage given the highly contested nature of the American presence in Iraq. The political and security situation in the country remains volatile, and so Europeans should pursue mediation efforts to reduce tensions and to find a way forward with both urgency and care.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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