Killing of Iraqi government confidant exposes perils of showdown with Iranian-backed militias

The killing of a prominent researcher in Baghdad has sent shock waves through Iraq’s government, underscoring the high stakes of its fight with powerful Iranian-backed militias and exposing the potential limits of the prime minister in taking them on.

Advisers to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi have been taken aback that violence could reach so close to his inner circle. Hisham al-Hashimi, who specialized in security affairs, was a confidant to many of them, and his assassination on July 6 drove home the fact that few in Iraq are untouchable.

Although the assassin has yet to be identified publicly, Iraqi officials say he is linked to one of the Iranian-backed militias that Kadhimi has confronted since taking office in May.

Kadhimi has promised to rein in militias operating outside of the law, an effort pushed by the United States, whose 17-year military presence in Iraq has been violently targeted by some of these armed groups.

But it remains unclear how far Kadhimi will dare to go in taking them on over Hashimi’s killing. While an investigation headed by the deputy interior minister to catch the killer is underway, Kadhimi’s aides and political allies say that identifying who gave the order could be too politically explosive.

“He wants justice, but his hands are tied,” said one adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity. “Launching a full-blown investigation into why this happened, well, that is simply too dangerous for any prime minister here.”

Closed-circuit television footage of Hashimi’s killing outside his house has been watched across Iraq, the grainy video a dark reminder of years when militias ruled the street. The gunman works quickly, shooting the 47-year-old researcher dead in the front seat of his car before slipping away into the night.

In Baghdad, Kadhimi’s political associates have wondered aloud which one of them might be next. Some have disappeared from the airwaves. Others have left the city or, if they were already outside, said they would not be returning for a while.

“Hisham’s killing was a message, and everybody heard,” said another of Kadhimi’s aides. “They showed that no matter how well-connected you are, the militias can always reach you.”

Hashimi became a victim of the escalating fight between the prime minister and the militias, part of a larger competition between the United States and Iran for influence in Iraq, say experts on Iraq.

He was one of the country’s foremost security experts, researching the inner workings of the Islamic State and various Iranian-backed militias, and his killing “could be interpreted as a preemptive measure to weaken Kadhimi’s hand going forward,” said Ramzy Mardini, an associate at the Pearson Institute at the University of Chicago, which studies conflict resolution.

“There’s every reason to believe that Kataib Hezbollah anticipates future conflict with his government,” he said, referring to the most influential militia group that Kadhimi has clashed with.

Targeting militias backfires
Iraqi militias, including several with close ties to Iran, helped the Iraqi military and U.S.-led coalition battle the Islamic State, culminating in its defeat in Iraq in 2017. This earned the militias an official role in Iraq’s security apparatus as part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), with government-provided salaries and weapons.

Yet some of the Iranian-aligned groups are accused of continuing to operate outside the law. They make money from extortion and smuggling and run a secret prison network. Some of the armed groups routinely launch rocket attacks on military and diplomatic facilities linked to the United States, increasing pressure on the U.S.-led coalition to end its presence in Iraq as sought by the country’s parliament.

The prime minister has made a very public show of wanting to rein them in, promising to investigate rocket attacks when they occur, installing allies at the top of Iraq’s security apparatus and targeting smuggling rings that generate militia revenue.

In an unusual show of force, he ordered the arrest of 14 members of Kataib Hezbollah on June 26, accusing them of planning to attack Baghdad’s Green Zone, a sensitive diplomatic and political area near the center of the city, but the men were quickly released.

Experts said that this raid, rather than chastening the group, has emboldened the militias, encouraging them to escalate attacks and resist government control before Kadhimi grows stronger. To some militias, Kadhimi’s aggressive moves “add up to a prime minister with growing offensive capability,” Mardini said.

After a brief hiatus, rocket attacks resumed, this time claimed by shadowy new groups that Iraqi and U.S. security officials suspect to be fronts for well-known militias.

The most recent rocket struck close to the U.S. Embassy as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was visiting the city.

Then, on Monday, a well-known German art curator, Hella Mewis, was snatched from the streets by armed men in a pickup truck. A government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the situation’s sensitivity, said the kidnappers were believed to have links to an Iranian-backed militia. She was freed by security forces Friday in east Baghdad.

Adding to the pressures on Kadhimi are the broken economy he inherited, now made worse by the impact of the coronavirus epidemic , and a lack of broad-based support for any program to tackle that.

‘Increasingly rogue groups’
In recent months, Hashimi had become more outspoken about the impunity with which some militias were operating. In his final article, published days before his death, he argued they could be brought to heel, though slowly to avoid a “bone-breaking battle.”

As one of Iraq’s most respected analysts, Hashimi had once been well connected with major figures inside the militias. But the U.S. drone strike in January that killed an Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis upended the militia scene, according to experts monitoring the groups, changing how they operated and who controlled them. So when Hashimi began receiving death threats from their ranks in recent months, including from Kataib Hezbollah, he was at a loss as to how to respond.

“Whereas once he could call Muhandis or [others] to better understand and perhaps even mitigate the threats he faced, that option was no longer there,” wrote Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program and a close friend of Hashimi. “All of his senior PMF contacts had gone into hiding and could not control increasingly rogue groups.”

Political analysts said the targeted killing of Soleimani and Muhandis suddenly made it difficult for any one leader to control or speak for a fragmenting network of armed groups.

Experts tracking the Quds Force, the external operations wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which supports groups in Iraq, say that Soleimani’s successor, Ismail Qaani, is more hands-off, issuing broad directives but not consulting on day-to-day operations.

“Qaani is clever enough not to try to emulate Soleimani’s leadership style, which means greater delegation of responsibility to the field commanders,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Muhandis’s death has also been keenly felt. His replacement, Abu Fadak al-Mohammedawi, took months to be named and does not have the same ability to forge a common position among the groups, militia sources and U.S. and Iraqi security officials say.

“And so it’s harder and harder to track everyone,” said one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “We’re seeing the impact of that now.”

When rocket attacks or ambushes occur, they are claimed now by previously unknown militia groups whose membership is also unknown. It is unclear, one Iraqi official said, whether these are splinter groups or existing militias using another name, and so reining them in “feels like chasing ghosts.”

Kadhimi’s political associates and human rights monitors say they are skeptical about what the investigation into Hashimi’s killing could achieve. At most, several political allies said, they expected a criminal trial for the gunman, without delving into who gave the order and why.

“We thought that these pens and these voices opposing the militias were a fresh start,” said Aziz al-Rubaye, an Iraqi journalist now based in Iraq’s Kurdish region. “Hisham’s death showed that the Iraqi state and its law are just ink on paper.”

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