Former Iraqi PM Haidar Al Abadi has sparked a political row in Iraq after claiming that his successor Adel Abdul Mahdi had given permission for the US aircraft that were about to kill Iranian General Qassem Suleimani to enter Iraqi airspace.
Mr Al Abadi said "the plane that targeted the leaders [Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis] near Baghdad Airport had Iraqi permission". The statement alludes to responsibility of the government, without directly saying Iraqi officials knew what the mission of the plane was.
He made the remarks as an Iraqi Air Force document was released to the media, confirming that US aircraft, including drones, had been permitted to fly over Iraqi airspace on January 3, the day the targeting killing occurred.
The authorisation, signed by Iraqi air defence commander Jabbar Obeid Kazem hours after the air strike took place, said that “three drones had entered Baghdad airspace hours before the operation and flew towards the airport ”.
Mr Abdul Mahdi's media office denied the accusation in a lengthy Facebook post on Friday, saying "hours before the assassination" the US had sought removal of some flight restrictions place on coalition forces and entry into restricted airspace.
"None of the Iraqi authorities granted such permission," it wrote, urging anyone with contrary information to come forward.
"Anyone who possesses real information about the incident must submit it to the judiciary active in this matter, and it is wrong to accuse parties who have no immediate relationship to the matter... According to the daily orders and official records, there is nothing consistent with what was rumoured."
The killing of Suleimani, who was the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) almost led to war between Iran and the US.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described Suleimani as a “living martyr” and Iran pledged to react by targeting US forces. Within a week, Iran had launched a barrage of ballistic missiles into Iraq, targeting joint US-Iraqi bases and injuring 100 American soldiers, who were sheltering in bunkers but suffered concussive injuries.
Since then, US and British forces stationed in Iraq have come under repeated attack from Iran-leaning Iraqi militias.
Alongside Suleimani, the January 3 drone strike also killed Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the de facto commander of Iraqi militia umbrella organisation the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Muhandis, a close associate of Suleimani, was a well-known loyalist of the Iranian regime, leading the Iran-funded militia group Kataib Hezbollah, itself a part of the PMF.
The latter killing also provoked a political storm in Iraq: Iran-leaning groups viewed Muhandis as being vital to the war on ISIS.
His detractors claim he was responsible for killing hundreds of Shiite anti-government protesters in October 2019; prior to that, Muhandis’ group were accused of killing hundreds of Sunni civilians in the war on ISIS. Kataib Hezbollah's numerous fatal attacks on US forces between 2008 and 2011, and again in December 2019, were also likely a factor in the US decision to launch the January 3 air strike.
Because the attack occurred near Baghdad's airport after Suleimani's convoy had departed on the airport road, pro-Iranian groups in Iraq demanded an immediate investigation, claiming that Iraqi agents of the US had facilitated the killing.
In July, Kataib Hezbollah threatened current Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who is close to former Mr Al Abadi, accusing him of being directed by “his American masters”, due to his US-leaning policies, pledges to rein in militia power and his previous role as director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service.
The latter organisation worked with US intelligence agencies when Mr Al Abadi was in power, at the height of the war against ISIS.
The allegation that Mr Abdul Mahdi may have known about the attacks in advance has caused a small political shockwave in Baghdad. Mr Abdul Mahdi was formerly a member of the Iran-leaning Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and although he later left the group, critics say he never relinquished loyalty to Tehran. This perception only hardened when the former PM refused to investigate pro-Iran militia groups for gunning down protesters.
The accusations made by Mr Al Abadi point to a widening rift among the elites in Baghdad.
MP Moeen Al Kadhimi of the Iran-leaning Badr Organisation has claimed that Mr Abdul Mahdi only allowed Coalition aircraft to overfly Baghdad on January 3, not permitting them to conduct an airstrike.
But Mr Abdul Mahdi had previously demanded that all Coalition missions, including flights by drones, must be authorised by the Prime Minister’s Office, issuing instructions to the same effect in August 2019.
This suggests Mr Abdul Mahdi would have been aware that US aircraft were airborne and potentially, posed a threat to Suleimani and Muhandes.
A week prior to Suleimani’s killing, US aircraft launched a series of air strikes on Kataib Hezbollah, killing dozens of the group’s members after an American contractor was killed in a Kataib Hezbollah rocket attack on December 27, 2019.
Critics said that Mr Abdul Mahdi made the decision to restrict Coalition air strikes under Iranian pressure, since Iran-backed groups including Kataib Hezbollah were moving men and equipment across the Syrian border.
In response to Mr Al Abadi’s allegations, the Badr Organisation and its Fatah parliamentary bloc have called for an immediate investigation.
This could worsen an increasingly acrimonious row between Mr Al Abadi and Mr Al Kadhimi on one side, and Iran-leaning Shiite elites on the other, including Badr Organisation head Hadi Al Amiri and former PM Nouri Al Maliki.
This article was updated to reflect the tone of Mr Al Abadi's comments and add Mr Abdel Mahdi's response.