Just days before his assassination, Iraqi security analyst Husham Al Hashimi appeared on TV to rile against Kataib Hezbollah militiamen arrested by the government for attacking US forces. He described them as mutineers who should face justice.
He even said that Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi would stand his ground after ordering the raid on the militia base to arrest the Iran-backed fighters accused of dozens of attacks on coalition and American soldiers as well as the US Embassy in Baghdad.
However, on June 30 – five days after the raid – the militiamen walked free. Then, on Monday evening as he pulled his car up outside his home, Al Hashimi was shot dead by unknown gunmen on motorcycles who then sped off.
The prominent researcher who specialised in studying militant and extremist groups had reportedly received numerous death threats from the Iran-backed militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, in the weeks before his killing. But the well-respected figure brushed off the warnings and ignored pleas from friends and family to hire bodyguards, move to a more secure location or leave the country.
Although the perpetrator and motive are still unknown, his killing appears to embody the confrontation playing out between Mr Al Kadhimi and the well-armed and powerful non-state groups operating in Iraq. Al Hashimi was a confidante and friend of Mr Al Kadhimi.
The outcome will determine whether Mr Al Kadhimi, formerly the country’s intelligence chief, can exercise any real power since powerbrokers aligned with Iran okayed the prime minister’s nomination in early May amid an economic crisis.
The tightrope of leadership
Mr Al Kadhimi is one of Iraq’s only secular prime minister in the 15-years since democratic elections ushered out the Saddam Hussein era and brought in a new political landscape.
His rise inspired Mr Al Hashimi and other reformist Iraqis to offer their expertise – formally or informally. Some had befriended Mr Al Kadhimi when he was a member of the exiled opposition to Saddam. Others only met Mr Al Kadhimi after he returned to Baghdad in 2003 to work on documenting Saddam's abuses and study prospects for reconciliation.
Mr Al Hashimi was not a political figure and, so far, no one has claimed responsibility for his killing.
Iraqi political commentator Hiwa Osman told The National that Al Hashimi's killing "constitutes the first real test for Mr Al Kadhimi and his government," as he was both a prominent voice for reform and close to the protesters who helped bring the prime minister to power.
“He will have to take real actions. If he does not, it will be the beginning of the end for him,” Mr Osman said. “They have to be very bold steps from him that demonstrates he is capable of leading and that others won’t think to do the same.”
A senior Western diplomat working in the Middle East said the assassination was a clear message to Mr Al Kadhimi that the militias are undiminished.
"It shows how limited Kadhimi's power is, and how narrow his options are," the diplomat told The National.
The soft-spoken Al Hashimi predicted the raid against Kataib Hezbollah would "chastise" the group, together with militia peers considered among the most lethal in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), as well as "the parties and politicians behind them."
The PMF, also known as Hashed, is a grouping of the 120,000 to 150,000 mostly Shiite Iraqi paramilitary. It was formed by an edict issued by Iraq’s highest Shiite authority, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, in 2014 to assist in the battle against ISIS – a stark departure from the non-violent creed of the Iranian born cleric.
Since then, the PMFs have been nominally integrated into the state and allocated $1.5-$2 billion from the national budget. While Mr Al Sistani has called on the PMFs to fully integrate with the Iraqi military, they remain largely autonomous.
Mr Al Sistani refrained from joining the calls for the PMFs to disarm after the end of the war against ISIS . He did not publicly criticise any brigades for the killings of Sunni civilians during the battles or more recently for any of the more than 700 deaths and dozens of mysterious kidnappings during the protests against the government since October.
Finding unity in the face of opposition
While the different brigades of the PMF have long had internal differences, splits became clear after a US airstrike near Baghdad airport in January killed Iran’s Quds Force major general Qassem Suleimani and Kataib Hezbollah's commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis. The two men were instrumental in resolving internal PMF tensions and keeping a unified stance.
Al Muhandis was an important problem solver for Iran’s proxies. In 2017 he smoothed over a row that erupted when Lebanon’s Hezbollah brokered a deal for around 300 ISIS fighters entrenched on the mountainous border east of the Bekaa Valley to leave for Abu Kamal in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border.
Mustafa Al Kadhimi tours Mosul
After the deaths of Al Muhandis and Suleimani, fault lines re-emerged within the PMF and different power centres developed.
But, with the election of Mr Al Kadhimi and his move against Kataib Hezbollah, most of the pro-Iranian elements in Iraq put aside their rivalries.
The arrests sparked protest from Kataib Hezbollah but no immediate, direct bloodshed. They openly defied the government taking to the streets and threatening to bring their PMF associates with them. When the dozen Kataib Hezbollah fighters were released from jail, they were filmed trampling on Mr Al Kadhimi’s photo.
Asaib Ahl Al Haq, another PMF brigade, mocked the prime minister for his international ties, saying he should not interfere in Iraq's internal affairs.
Then, another rocket attack targeted the US embassy on Saturday, wounding an Iraqi civilian when the projectile was shot down by embassy defences.
As the situation escalated, pressure grew on Mr Al Kadhimi to show that he can still be decisive.
His response on Saturday was to sack Faleh Al Fayadh, the nominal leader of the PMFs, from his position as National Security Agency head and national security adviser.
The removal of Mr Al Fayadh exemplifies Mr Al Kadhimi's dual strategy, on the one hand deploying loyal elite Iraqi military troops against the rank-and-file PMF fighters and on the other are political manoeuvres to try and outflank his opponents.
But Mr Al Fayadh’s dismissal may not be a blow to Iran's clients that it appeared, Iraqi and Western sources with direct channels to Mr Al Kadhimi said.
One too many warlords
Two regional security officials said that Mr Al Fayadh is regarded as the mere figurehead of the PMFs, with far more hardline commanders who have closer links to Tehran really calling the shots
Mr Al Fayadh sought to lessen Iran's control over the PMF, although not to nearly the same degree as the prime minister, the sources said.
A member of the Shiite seminary in Najaf, who is well connected with an array of factions within the PMF, described Mr Al Fayadh, as a scapegoat.
"Al Kadhimi is too weak to take on anyone stronger than Al Fayadh," he said.
Despite Mr Al Fayadh’s two official security roles and his position as PMF head, he was also far too weak to take on the most militant elements in the militias.
In his place, Mr Al Kadhimi appointed general Abdul Ghani Al Asadi, a career army officer sacked last year to please PMF hardliners, to run the National Security Agency. Gen Al Asadi played a crucial role in liberating Iraqi cities from ISIS.
Qasim Al Araji, who is close to the Badr Organisation – one of the most lethal components in the PMF – was named National Security Adviser.
The Badr Organisation was founded in Tehran in the 1980s as the Badr Corps under Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The group has controlled Iraq's interior ministry for over a decade and has had huge influence over the police, although it is not seen as having the same level of control as previously.
Despite his closeness to the Badr Organisation, Mr Al Araji is seen as less dogmatic than the group’s head, Hadi Al Amiri, and is willing to work with Mr Al Kadhimi.
Mr Araji was a disciple of Ahmad Khafaji, a former Badr commander and ex-interior minister assassinated by in 2014. Mr Khafaji did not rate the leadership of Mr Amiri, a man he considered incompetent.
Divide and rule
The appointment of Mr Araji reflects the political side of the prime minister’s plan in trying to play on the fragmentation within the ranks of his political foes, sources close to Mr Al Kadhimi say.
But, they say, the prime minister's goal of disarming the militias, taking back control of the borders with Iran and Syria and curbing the militias’ criminal activities remains a tall order.
Ultimately, the PMFs and pro-Iran factions are in a bind. While they are angered at Mr Al Kadhimi’s manoeuvres against them, he is a necessity for the time being.
The seminary source in Najaf, who has channels with Tehran, said a tanking Iraqi economy forced Iran to give their allies in Iraq's parliament and their militia associates the green light to approve the nomination of Mr Al Kadhimi.
"The Iranians have determined that Iraq becoming a failed state like Lebanon and Syria undermines their strategic position," the seminary source said. "They are counting on him to save the Iraqi economy.”
Amid the crisis and the national anger of a sustained months-long protest movement, some of the pro-Iran elements have invested in Mr Al Kadhimi’s vision – although this too might be an issue for the prime minister.
Last month, the fractured but mostly pro-Iran parliament gave Mr Al Kadhimi the nod to undertake massive foreign borrowing.
The vote followed a report by international rating agency Fitch that expected the economy to shrink 9 per cent this year, compounding the country’s woes. The agency said public debt would rise to 80 per cent of gross domestic product in 2020-2021 from 47 per cent in 2019.
Despite billions of dollars a month in oil revenue, electricity is patchy, hospitals and schools crumble, jobs are scarce, water intermittent and the bureaucracy inefficient and corrupt.
One regional businessman said that although Iraq's oil resources would help it tap international markets relatively easily, foreign lenders would be less accommodating if the government is seen as resolutely pro-Iran. This makes a prime minister like Mr Al Kadhimi crucial to Iraq’s economic future.
The prime minister’s predecessor, Adel Abdul Mahdi, also went into office criticising what he called lawless elements in the PMFs. Less than two years later, he was forced to resign after partnering with the PMF to try and crush the months-long uprising with bloodshed.
The killing and kidnappings of demonstrators did nothing to diminish the fervour on the streets and led Mr Al Sistani to remove support for the government, making Mr Abdel Mahdi’s position untenable.
He deepened his alliance with them in the five-month he stayed on caretaker prime minister in the hope of derailing any alternative and being reinstated.
Unlike Mr Abdel Mahdi, Mr Al Kadhimi says he is resolutely against the use of violence.
Shortly before his death, Al Hashimi said that although Mr Al Kadhimi could count on elite military units in the state, he preferred to use soft power and is well aware of the dangers of civil strife.
Lebanese political analyst Abdulwahab Badrakhan, a friend of Al Hashimi, said his killing was emblematic of “unavoidable” escalation between Mr Al Kadhimi and Iran’s allies.
“Al Kadhimi embarked on a difficult course,” said Mr Badrakhan. “Whoever killed Husham is waiting for [Al Kadhimi].”
But two months into his premiership, Mr Al Kadhimi appears to have achieved little concrete action to curtail the PMFs while antagonising their more hardline factions. He may be back at square one with one of the most prominent voices supporting reform in Iraq killed.
His mix of hard and soft power may ultimately not be enough in the face of those who have proved they are more than willing to shed any amount of blood to safeguard their position.