Assassination Attempt against Prime Minister Al-Khadimi Highlights Intra-Shia Divisions in Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 22

Prime Minister Al-Khadimi (Source: Arab News)

A loud explosion was heard in the early hours of November 7 in the fortified area in Baghdad known as the “Green Zone.” This was followed by heavy gunfire in the Green Zone, which hosts government offices and U.S. and other Western diplomatic missions. The Iraqi government announced that there was a failed assassination attempt against Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi carried out by a drone at his house. Al-Kadhimi appeared shortly afterward to confirm that he was safe and sound and to call for calm (, November 7).

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, but it occurred amid rising tensions between al-Kadhimi, who is a moderate Shia, and radical Iran-backed Shia militias. The latter did very poorly in the October parliamentary elections and lost most of the seats they had won three years ago. Although al-Kadhimi did not take part in the October elections nor did he openly support any party, the militias accused him and the electoral commission of rigging the elections. The anti-American Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, who is a political ally of al-Kadhimi, won the most seats (, October 12).

The attack also occurred two days after clashes between security forces and Iran-backed Shia militia supporters protesting the election results. Two people were killed and dozens injured in the clashes, and militia leaders considered al-Khadimi responsible (, November 5). Al-Kadhimi did not accuse any group in the attack against his house, but fingers were pointed toward the militias. The whole escalation indicates the depth of the intra-Shia division and clash of interests in Iraq, especially after the October elections. [1]

Elections, Power, Money, and Militias

The October early elections were called after a period of instability caused by a wave of street protests in Baghdad and the predominantly Shia southern Iraq in late 2019. One result of the protests was the resignation of al-Khadimi’s predecessor as prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi. The protests were fueled by high unemployment, poor public services, and public anger with endemic corruption in government (, April 12).

The protesters, who were mostly Shia, directed their anger against the whole political class and Iran, which they saw as the dominant power of a corrupt system through its influence on all major Shia parties in Iraq. The Iran-backed Shia militias played a major role in suppressing the demonstrations after they labeled the protests as a foreign sponsored conspiracy. Most of those militias had raised their profile since the civil war started in neighboring Syria where they fought, as part of the Iranian war effort, on the side of the government of President Bashar al-Assad (, June 9, 2014).

The militias’ role became even more prominent in Iraq itself during the war against the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017. In 2016, the Iraqi parliament, with its Shia majority and amid a Sunni boycott, passed legislation that legalized the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) as an official umbrella for the predominantly Shia militias (, November 26, 2016). A coalition of major Shia militias came second in the 2018 elections, not far behind al-Sadr, who leads a large militia himself. Abdul-Mahdi became the compromise prime minister and both blocs’ representatives received senior positions and maintained access to state budget and resources. (, May 14, 2018). For the militias, that meant the beginning of an era where they would be able, like other established parties, to exploit their share in government to build a patronage base and expand their support base within the public. The protests, however, challenged and jeopardized that system.

Al-Kadhimi and the Militias 

Al-Kadhimi’s relations with the Iran-backed Shia militias have been tense. He was selected last year as a compromise transitional prime minister to organize early elections. His appointment in this position, moreover, came with the support of all major factions, including the Iran-backed shia militias, to end the political deadlock.

Although al-Khadimi, who is the former head of the intelligence service, came from within the political system and became something of a caretaker prime minister, many in the anti-militia protest movement hoped that he was going to confront the militias and bring to justice those militia members and leaders who had been accused of killing protesters. Al-Kadhimi never went that far in confronting the militias, but he engaged in several significant confrontations with them. The most prominent clashes with the militias occurred in June 2020, when al-Khadimi ordered a raid on a group of militia members who were plotting to launch rocket attacks on Iraqi and U.S. forces and the U.S. embassy (, June 29, 2020)

In addition, earlier this year, al-Khadimi ordered the arrest of a prominent militia commander, Qassim Musleh, who was believed to be involved in planning attacks on U.S. targets in western Iraq (, May 27; The Jamestown Foundation).

On both occasions of challenging the militias, al-Kadhimi seemed to have eventually backed down in the face of immense reaction from the militias. Aware of his weak position, he even extended an olive branch and sought to emphasize his friendly relations with leaders of the militias. Nevertheless, in the eyes of the militias, al-Khadimi’s moves were clear signals of what he could do if he gained more power.

Al-Kadhimi’s Strong Allies 

Al-Kadhimi has enjoyed continuous U.S. support. Interestingly, he has also received unwavering support from Moqtada al-Sadr, who is currently in a critical position in Iraqi politics. Al-Sadr has always been anxious about the empowerment of rival Shia militias, which in many cases, occurred at the expense of al-Sadr’s own militia. Recent analyses have considered al-Sadr’s political and electoral gains as somewhat good news for the U.S., but that is not necessarily true. The U.S. is, in fact, the main ideological enemy of al-Sadr’s movement, which dates back not only to al-Sadr’s militia’s uprisings in 2003 and 2004 against the U.S.-led coalition forces, but further to the founding principles of the Sadrist movement that was established by his late father in the 1990s. [2]

Al-Sadr is less dependent on Iran compared to other militias, most of which were originally created by Iran itself. Al-Sadr, on the other hand, leads not only a militia but a grassroots movement. However, al-Sadr’s independence does not make him an enemy of Iran. Indeed, he visits Iran frequently and has famously been greeted with honor publicly by Iran’s leaders (, September 11, 2019). Therefore, it is not realistic to believe that al-Sadr would ever side with the U.S. in any effort to attack or even weaken Iran strategically. His dispute with the Iranians is primarily over who should dominate Shia politics in Iraq.

Then, during the elections, he came in first, with more than 70 seats in the 329 seat parliament. Many thought his first choice would be to appoint one of his immediate followers as prime minister. This, however, would be hard to do for al-Sadr given that all the other Shia parties are deeply worried about what this would mean for their own future. Hence, speculation shifted to the idea that al-Sadr would support al-Kadhimi himself for a second, full four-year term in office.

The Potential Anti-PMF Alliance 

The Shia militias’ concerns over the election results are not merely about losing senior government posts and the financial implications of that. Rather, their main concern is that a political pact to end their legal mandate and subsequently disband them might be taking shape. In addition to al-Sadr’s big win in the Shia areas, other parties that emerged as clear winners in the Kurdish and Sunni areas are also not on friendly terms with the militias, including the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by the Barzani family, which won most seats in the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq (, November 12).

Although the KDP has historic ties to Iran, it is a strategic ally of Turkey, and not Iran. The KDP leaders have frequently criticized the Shia militias and have given refuge in their areas to anti-militia activists. In the predominantly Sunni areas in western Iraq, the speaker of parliament, Muhammad al-Halboosi, won most seats by defeating the U.S.-sanctioned wealthy businessman, Khamis al-Khanjar, who was a favorite of the militias (, October 13). [3]

An alliance of al-Sadr with his grassroots supporters in the Shia areas, the U.S.-backed al-Kadhimi, and the anti-militia Kurdish and Sunni parties would be potentially devastating to the Iran-backed Shia militias. Such an alliance could secure not only a majority in parliament to form the government, but could nullify the PMF’s legal authority and lead to a crackdown on the militias. Such a scenario would be a dramatic development and would put al-Sadr and al-Kadhimi at conflict with Iran itself. However, the clash of interests among the Shia factions has reached a critical point, and al-Sadr does not want his clear electoral victory to be compromised, while the nearly wounded al-Kadhimi after the attack on his house is not expected to give any ground to the militias.

What Does Not Kill Al-Khadimi Makes Him Stronger

The attack on al-Kadhimi’s house occurred as tensions were escalating even further between the militias and the Iraqi Prime Minister. Two days earlier, supporters of the militias, who had been protesting the election results for weeks, tried to invade the Green Zone. The security forces clashed with the protesters, and a number of them were killed and injured. Qais al-Khazali, the leader of one of the most prominent militias, appeared at the scene of the clashes and blamed al-Kadhimi for the killing of the demonstrators and vowed to make him pay the price (, November 5).

However, when al-Kadhimi’s house was attacked, the militia leaders, including al-Khazali, vehemently denied any involvement (, November 7). Others in the militias went further to quickly nurture a conspiracy theory, accusing an unspecified party of working to destabilize Iraq. That, however, is a reference to Iran’s enemies, such as the U.S., which supposedly is working to escalate the struggle between al-Kadhimi and the militias (, November 9).

Other militia supporters even suggested that the whole story of the drone attack was fabricated by al-Kadhimi himself! Al-Khadimi, according to that claim, tried to evade responsibility for the recent killing of protesters while also boosting his popularity. This is because the attack was considered an attack on Iraqi national sovereignty (, November 8).

The Iran-Backed Shia Militias’ Strategic Next Steps

Losing the elections was a major blow to the Shia militias. In dealing with this, they have thus far pursued a three-pronged strategy. First, they politically formed a coalition of almost all other Shia parties, except al-Sadr’s party. Their coalition has been operating under the leadership of al-Sadr’s staunch enemy, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who came in second in the Shia areas in the elections. The main claim of this political group is to reject the results of the elections and call for a full recount, but at the same time defy al-Sadr’s claim of a majority within the Shia community by forming an even larger bloc with all their parliamentary seats combined (, October 16).

The second part of the militias’ strategy is to threaten to resort to violence. Instead of stating that clearly, however, they use carefully crafted expressions. These include a warning about likely “dire consequences” on the security and stability of Iraq if election results are not changed (, October 12. )

The third element of the militias’ strategy is to organize public protests and sit-ins. However, unlike the anti-government protests of 2019 or those organized by al-Sadar’s supporters in recent years, the militias’ protests were not large enough to have an impact. There was also criticism that many protesters were in fact members of the militias and on the PMF’s payroll and were merely following orders to pretend to be civilian protesters (, October 25).

Despite all the militias’ efforts, reversing the result of the elections was difficult and another move seemed looming. On November 4, al-Sadr travelled from his base in the Shia holy city of Najaf to Baghdad to meet with the biggest winners in Sunni and Kurdish areas obviously to agree to the terms of forming the new government (, November 4). The militias’ protesters, however, escalated the situation and tried to invade the Green Zone and clashed with the security forces, which resulted in al-Sadr having cut his visit short and call for calm (, November 5).

On the following day after the attack on al-Kadhimi, General Esmael Qaani, commander of al-Quds Force in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF), also arrived in Baghdad. He met with al-Kadhimi to condemn the attack and claimed that it was not done with Iranian approval (, November 8). Iran’s National Security Advisor, Ali Shamakhani, had meanwhile suggested that the attack was somehow linked to Western think tanks (, November 7).


Since 2003, Shia factions with strong ties to Iran managed with the help of extensive Iranian mediation to agree to forming and dominating governments that included positions for the Kurds and Sunnis. The current intra-Shia struggle has proven to be at its most crucial point in years. Iran’s task is harder than ever to find a political deal that ensures its strategic interests and those of its Iraqi allies. Iran must convince the militias that they should accept losing without resorting to violence in return for a solid commitment from al-Sadr and the next prime minister that the government will not crush the militias.

Iraqi Shia militias and Iran, meanwhile, accuse the U.S. of pursuing a strategy that allegedly aims to incite a conflict in Iraq. The U.S. in fact is facing challenging questions about who and what to support in Iraq. In addition to the challenge of Iran and its allies, the threat of IS and Sunni jihadists has not completely disappeared. The outcome of the ongoing intra-Shia struggle in Iraq, therefore, will play a decisive role in shaping the future of the regional conflict in Iraq and the wider Middle East.


[1] In general Iraqi voters vote along sectarian lines. The Shia constituency is the largest in Iraq. More than half of the members of parliament represent Shia majority areas in central and southern Iraq. The other two sizable constituencies are the Kurds, who are concentrated in the north, and the Sunnis, who are concentrated in the west of the country.

[2] Moqtada al-Sadr’s father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, founded his movement on the foundation of opposing the U.S. He famously introduced the chant “No, no to America. No, no to Israel” and led his followers in chanting during religious gatherings and ceremonies. He was assassinated, likely by Saddam Hussein’s government, in February 1999.

[3] Khamis al-Khanjar is Sunni, but he was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for corruption alongside Shia militia leaders in 2019.