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The Iraqi power struggle behind a murder in Baghdad

Once a sensitive operator from the shadows, the new PM has provoked his rivals and cemented control over the military and security agencies
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi offers condolences to the family of the late former government adviser Hisham al-Hashemi (Reuters)
By in
Baghdad

The clocks struck 8.19pm on 6 July when Hisham al-Hashemi pulled his white Jeep Cherokee up outside his house in the eastern Baghdad neighbourhood of Zayouna.

It seems the prominent specialist in jihadist groups and star of Iraqi satellite news channels paid no attention to the motorcyclists parked approximately 20 metres from his home.

As Hashimi turned his car towards the front door of his house, the biker closest to him, hooded and dressed all in black, ran over to the car and attempted to fire his automatic rifle. The Kalashnikov only fired a single bullet, but “it was enough to paralyse Hisham's movement”, a senior police officer involved in the investigations told Middle East Eye.

Surveillance camera footage shows the gun jamming, and the gunman pausing briefly as he tried to fix the defect. Eventually, he instead pulled a handgun out of his jacket, ran towards the driver’s window, fired several bullets towards Hashimi and withdrew.

Hashimi’s murder took less than a minute. In many respects, it resembled dozens of assassinations carried out in Baghdad and the central and southern provinces against activists, journalists and influencers over the past three years.

But it was different.

An Iraqi places a candle in front of a poster of slain Iraqi jihadism expert Hisham al-Hashemi during a candlelight vigil in Erbil (AFP)
An Iraqi places a candle in front of a poster of slain Iraqi jihadism expert Hisham al-Hashemi during a candlelight vigil in Erbil (AFP)

The 47-year-old was an expert in Sunni militant groups in Iraq and had helped the Iraqi security services and US forces dismantle or neutralise dozens of them over the past 13 years.

Because of this, he’d made many enemies. However, few in the popular media and political circles, including those close to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, believed the Islamic State group and its ilk were responsible.

Instead accusations have been pointed at Shia armed groups, in particular Kataeb Hezbollah, Iraq’s powerful Iran-backed paramilitary and one of Kadhimi’s fiercest and most aggressive opponents.

Those close to Kadhimi believe Hashimi’s killing was only the harbinger of more to come and a direct challenge to the prime minister himself.

Intelligence sources told MEE that more of the prime minister’s entourage are in the assailants’ sights.

An existential threat

The assassination, an adviser of the prime minister told MEE, was “a message of intimidation to Kadhimi and his team’s members” from the “gang of Katyusha”, a nickname for Kataeb Hezbollah referencing the rockets used by the group to attack US interests in Iraq.

"The message clearly suggests that … they can reach us any time, and that he [Kadhimi] is too weak to protect his people,” the adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

However, two more of Kadhimi’s advisers insist it is too early to confirm that Kataeb Hezbollah lies behind the killing, preferring instead to describe the culprit as a “radical Shia group”.

'We know that our names are all on the list, and that each of us must think that he is the next'

- Kadhimi adviser

“We believe that they will target the members of Kadhimi’s inner circle with the aim of challenging him and dragging him into a traditional confrontation, which they have all the tools to win at this stage,” one said.

"We know that our names are all on the list, and that each of us must think that he is the next.”

Hashimi’s assassination and the danger now posed to his allies is an existential threat for the premier’s fledgling two-month rule.

All of Kadhimi’s supporters and opponents, inside and outside Iraq, are wondering how he will respond.

Recent history suggests it may be confrontational.

From quiet operator to bete noir

Journalists and politicians who worked with Kadhimi or met him in exile in the 1990s describe him as a moderate, ambitious, very polite, a good listener and a man who does not tend to verbally or physically clash with his critics or opponents.

The prime minister tended to mix with intellectuals and writers. He built a reputation as someone who excelled at documenting violence against victims of the Baathist government, and managed to enjoy good relations with all parties involved in local and regional conflicts.

Since the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, these characteristics have mostly stayed the same, according to a number of former colleagues who worked with him to establish the state-owned Iraqiya Media Network and magazine The Weekly.

Although Kadhimi helped establish many media projects, including the international website Al Monitor, “he did not draw attention as a journalist or as a thinker”, according to a prominent Iraqi journalist who has known the prime minister since their days working in the opposition against Saddam.

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Even during his four-year period as head of the intelligence service, Kadhimi avoided clashes with all of the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish political forces or Iranian-backed armed factions.

A Shia paramilitary commander close to Kataeb Hezbollah told MEE he managed this "despite having information proving that most of them were involved in criminal, economic and intelligence crimes", which would be enough to put them in jail or at least politically terminate them.

Yet since assuming the premiership, the man once known for operating sensitively from the shadows has taken several provocative stances.

He has surrounded himself with a number of researchers, journalists and activists who led or supported the protest movement that toppled his Iran-backed predecessor Adel Abdul Mahdi.

Among them are Hisham Dawood, a researcher in political anthropology; Harith Hasan, a political researcher; Mushreq Abbas, a journalist; Kadhim al-Sahlani, an academic and activist; Aqeel Abbas, an academic; Ahmed al-Mulla Talal, a TV anchor; and Ahmed al-Rikabi, a journalist.

Munqith Dagher, CEO of the Baghdad-based Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies think tank, describes Kadhimi as “an expert in the game of media”, which is why he has surrounded himself with media personalities.

His entourage, Dagher says, has been assembled in a parallel prime minister’s office, with Kadhimi wary of shunting Abdul Mahdi’s staff aside.

“He is a compromise man, so he did not make any major changes in the old prime minister's office staff, but he also created a small parallel office to which his special team, his group, and his advisers joined,” Dagher says.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks to the media at Mandali border crossing between Iraq and Iran (Reuters)
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks to the media at Mandali border crossing between Iraq and Iran (Reuters)

However, the prime minister’s circle is seen by the Iran-backed factions as “hostile to them, seeking revenge and keeping them from power”, according to one of Kadhimi’s advisers.

Meanwhile, Kataeb Hezbollah has made no secret for its disdain for the man they hold responsible for the death of the armed faction’s founder, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed by a US drone strike alongside Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January.

Ignoring Iran’s request to support - or at least permit - Kadhimi’s premiership, Kataeb Hezbollah has missed no opportunity to attack him through their media outlets, and stepped up the rate of rocket attacks targeting US assets in Baghdad’s Green Zone and Iraqi military bases.

In response, Kadhimi last month ordered the Counter-Terrorism Squad to raid one of the faction’s headquarters and arrest its fighters there.

It was a startling escalation - one that led to Kataeb Hezbollah vowing to teach Kadhimi a lesson because he "dared to storm one of its headquarters and arrest a number of its fighters", a commander of the armed group told MEE.

Securing control

While Kadhimi's opponents were busy digging up the past of his entourage and plotting massive media campaigns to discredit and question their loyalties, the prime minister busied himself with elevating figures free from Iranian influence.

Over the past six weeks, he has issued a raft of decrees that have shaken up the military’s leadership and eased Iran’s grip on Iraq’s security forces.

He assigned Lieutenant-General Abdul Amir Yarallah as chief of staff of the army, Lieutenant-General Abdel Amir al-Shammari as deputy of the commander of joint operations, and Lieutenant-General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi as commander of the Counter-Terrorism Squad. He also appointed Major-General Fayez al-Mamouri as director of military intelligence.

Not satisfied with those positions alone, Kadhimi removed Faleh al-Fayadh, head of the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary, from his roles as the national security adviser and in the National Security Service, which he had run by proxy since 2009.

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Lieutenant-General Abdul-Ghani al-Asadi was made head of the National Security Service, and Qassim al-Araji, the former interior minister, national security adviser.

Kadhimi also drew a clear line between combat forces on the one hand and military intelligence directorate and the agency tasked with probing military violations on the other. The National Security Agency’s database was separated from the Iran-backed paramilitaries’ own security directorate, and he ordered the intelligence service to take command of the security of communications and information.

Suddenly, Kadhimi had a level of control over Iraq’s military and security agencies unseen in years, and retained effective command of the intelligence agency he had just vacated.

“All those military leaders are known for not being subject to the influence of the Iran-linked factions,” a prominent former Iraqi intelligence officer and a friend of Kadhimi, who declined to be named, told MEE.

"Kadhimi is Iraq’s boldest prime minister, and quickly rearranged the military’s house. All the prime ministers who preceded him were not able to identify the defects in the military, but Kadhimi’s work in intelligence over the past years helped him identify the deficiencies.”

These figures are Kadhimi’s true team, the former officer said, describing it as a military government that the prime minister may soon use with effect.

“As for the team of journalists and researchers, he used them to distract his opponents. He threw them to his opponents to busy themselves, and went to work elsewhere without disturbances,” he said.

Dangerous forces

Kadhimi currently surrounds himself with two of the most dangerous forces in Iraq, the media and the military.

This has provoked his opponents, especially the forces linked to Iran.

They say that he mimics Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was also an intelligence officer, and that he seeks to strike his opponents unilaterally while in power, including the armed factions’ leaders and fighters.

The raid on Kataeb Hezbollah’s headquarters last month and the arrest of its fighters, in addition to the changes in military staff, have intensified the suspicions of Kadhimi’s opponents that he is targeting them, and enflamed tensions.

“Hashemi’s assassination was one of the consequences of this tension,” one of Kadhimi’s advisers told MEE, adding that the premier does not seek to emulate Putin's personality, “but he wants the law to have teeth”.

“This political system has reached the brink and will not produce anything after today, and therefore he [Kadhimi] is convinced that the moment of real change has arrived. But unfortunately it came at a very critical time and coincided with a severe financial crisis, a major collapse in oil prices, and a deadly pandemic,” the adviser added.

“He seeks to empower the law, and as such, he tries to bite into the chaos that engulfs the country, whenever an opportunity exists. But the resources and capabilities of the supporters of anarchy are still far greater than the state's supporters."