Rocket hits Baghdad's Green Zone in first such incident for new PM

The rocket reportedly landed near the US Embassy and caused little damage.

al-monitor Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi wears a military uniform of the Popular Mobilization Units during his meeting with the head of the group, Faleh al-Fayadh, in Baghdad, May 16, 2020.  Photo by Iraqi prime minister's media office/via REUTERS.

May 19, 2020

A rocket landed near the US Embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone early this morning, according to Iraqi security officials. It was the first such attack since Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi took office May 7.

The rocket caused little damage, Iraq’s Security Media Cell said in a statement. 

“A Katyusha rocket fell on one of the empty houses within the Green Zone in Baghdad,” the cell — a security body controlled by the prime minister — said on Twitter. “The hit resulted in little damage to the home.”

The rocket was fired from the Idrissi neighborhood on the other side of the Tigris River from the Green Zone, according to the Security Media Cell. An Iraqi official told The Associated Press that it hit near the US Embassy.

Rocket attacks on the Green Zone and near the US Embassy are not uncommon. One occurred in March after Adnan al-Zurfi was nominated to become prime minister. He later withdrew his nomination, paving the way for Kadhimi.

That incident, the one today and several others this year were not claimed by any group. The United States has blamed the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group for several of the attacks near the embassy and on US troops in the country this year. Late last year, Kataib Hezbollah and other supporters of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) attacked the outside of the US Embassy in Baghdad following US airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah positions in Iraq.

Today’s rocket came at a time of significant political developments in Iraq. Kadhimi is in the difficult position of trying to balance Iraq’s relations with both the United States and Iran. He must also lead Iraq through the drop in global oil prices, continued protests and rising COVID-19 cases.

Before Kadhimi took office, some in Kataib Hezbollah made unfounded claims that Kadhimi was involved in the US killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad in January. The new prime minister met with PMU leaders this week, however, and was photographed wearing a PMU coat.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Kadhimi after he became prime minister, and the United States subsequently granted Iraq an extended 120-day electricity waiver to Iran sanctions.

Anti-government protesters in Iraq continue to oppose the PMU and the government. Several protests have occurred the past few days in Baghdad and around the country, according to protester channels on the encrypted messaging service Telegram despite COVID-19 concerns. Also this week, Iraqis on Twitter called on Kadhimi to visit a location in Baghdad called Jaraf al-Sakhr, where the PMU allegedly operates and bars the government from entering.

One Iraqi observer said it is not clear what the rocket attack signified. Farhad Alaaldin, chairman of the nongovernmental Iraq Advisory Council, told Al-Monitor. “It is not clear yet who did it and what was the intended target.”

Alaaldin said some in the country think the rocket may have been due to the backlash after European Union diplomats flew rainbow flags Sunday for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. “There are some who say this was the result of the raising of the rainbow flag by the EU Mission in Baghdad to commemorate the world day for LGBT day,” said Alaaldin.

The move was criticized by the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, among others. The British and Canadian diplomatic delegations also participated. The EU delegation in Iraq later deleted a tweet showing the flags. 

Iraqi analyst Diyari Salih said it is possible the missile was a reaction to the rainbow flag incident. “Many media sites said the missile was directed at the British Embassy,” he told Al-Monitor from Baghdad.

But Salih said the missile could also be a message from pro-Iran PMU groupings to the new prime minister regarding Iraq’s talks with the United States on American troops in the country. These groupings oppose the US military presence in Iraq, and Salih said those who fired the rocket might be sending the message “that there will be conditions imposed on Kadhimi in the strategic dialogue with the US.” 

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