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Opinion The attempted assassination of Iraq’s prime minister backfired spectacularly

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi poses in his office during an interview with the Associated Press in Baghdad on July 23. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)

Even by the brutal political rules of Baghdad, the recent attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi appears to have shocked many Iraqis — and undermined the Iranian-sponsored militias who had been trying to drive him from power.

The “cowardly” attack, as Kadhimi described it, has been condemned by the United Nations, the Biden administration, a wide range of Iraqi politicians — and even Iran, a prime suspect in the strike by three drones early Sunday morning. Two of the drones were shot down, but one hit Kadhimi’s residence, a small villa decorated with modern art where I met with him just a few months ago.

The implications of the Baghdad drone attack were summarized in an email from Randa Slim, director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute. “There is enough circumstantial evidence pointing to Iran-backed Iraqi militias having orchestrated this attack. But it already backfired on them. It was a stupid and shortsighted move that achieved the exact opposite of their objective to deny Prime Minister Kadhimi a second term. This assassination attempt made his second term in office almost certain.”

Kadhimi is the rare personality in the Middle East who has defied threats from Iran and its proxies without flinching. He has been living in the crosshairs since he took office in May 2020 and has tried to steer a course between the United States and Iran. Since then, Iranian-backed militias have attacked the Green Zone, murdered one of his friends and defied his security officials in their campaign of intimidation.

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The Iranian-backed militias’ rage at Kadhimi is partly a matter of sour grapes after their failure in last month’s elections. The big winner was the mercurial, independent-minded Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who, like Kadhimi, has tried to distance himself from Iran and promised he would “not leave Iraq in its grip.” Sadr’s party won 73 seats in the 329-member parliament, the largest block. The pro-Iran coalition known as “Fatah,” which includes the militias, won just 17 seats.

Kadhimi didn’t run, hoping that Sadr and other leaders would turn to him as an independent, as they did last year. Kadhimi was expected to begin talks about a new government with Sadr and other leading politicians late this month or in early December.

Soon after the ballots were counted, the Iranian-backed groups began claiming fraud, although the polling had been monitored by the United Nations and other independent groups. The militias even dubbed their protest movement “Stop the Steal” in a bizarre reference to former president Donald Trump.

The showdown turned violent Friday, when the militants besieged the Green Zone and assaulted Iraqi security forces protecting government offices and foreign embassies there. The troops fired back, and two protesters were killed. An Iraqi official close to Kadhimi told me Sunday that more than 80 security forces and about 27 militia supporters were injured. “This was a staged campaign to block Kadhimi’s reelection,” said the official, who said Kadhimi was planning to try to de-escalate the confrontation.

Then came the assassination attempt early Sunday, and expressions of anger from Iraqis who had hoped Kadhimi could reform Iraq’s gross corruption and thread the needle between America and Iran. “We will pursue those who committed yesterday’s crime; we know them well and we will expose them,” Kadhimi said in a statement from his office. Other Iraqi politicians issued supportive statements.

Iran and its militia allies made a predictable attempt to suggest that the United States was somehow to blame for the confrontation and attempted murder. “Such incidents are in line with the interests of parties that have violated the stability, security, independence, and territorial integrity of Iraq over the past 18 years,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh.

But this anti-American spin isn’t likely to gain traction, even among conspiracy-minded Iraqis. And it’s easily rebutted because the drones were recovered. If Kadhimi can stay alive, he has a better chance than a week ago of remaining in power and mobilizing the kind of reforms that Iraq desperately needs.