A drone attack that targeted the Iraqi prime minister on Sunday was carried out by at least one Iran-backed militia, Iraqi security officials and militia sources said, weeks after pro-Iran groups were routed in elections they say were rigged.
But the neighbouring Islamic Republic is unlikely to have sanctioned the attack as Tehran is keen to avoid a spiral of violence on its western border, the sources and independent analysts said.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi escaped unhurt when three drones carrying explosives were launched at his residence in Baghdad. Several of his bodyguards were injured.
The incident whipped up tensions in Iraq, where powerful Iran-backed paramilitaries are disputing the result of a general election last month that dealt them a crushing defeat at the polls and greatly reduced their strength in parliament.
Many Iraqis fear that tension among the main groups that dominate government and most state institutions, and also boast paramilitary branches, could spiral into broad civil conflict if further such incidents occur.
Also read: Iraqi PM safe after drone attack on residence, military says
Baghdad's streets were emptier and quieter than usual on Monday, and additional military and police checkpoints in the capital appeared intent on keeping a lid on tensions.
Iraqi officials and analysts said the attack was meant as a message from militias that they are willing to resort to violence if excluded from the formation of a government, or if their grip on large areas of the state apparatus is challenged.
"It was a clear message of, 'We can create chaos in Iraq – we have the guns, we have the means'," said Hamdi Malik, a specialist on Iraq’s militias at the Washington Institute.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. Iran-backed militia groups did not immediately comment and the Iranian government did not respond to requests for comment.
Two regional officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said Tehran had knowledge about the attack before it was carried out, but that Iranian authorities had not ordered it.
Militia sources said the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards overseas Quds Force travelled to Iraq on Sunday after the attack to meet paramilitary leaders and urge them to avoid any further escalation of violence.
Also read: Iran blames 'foreign think tanks' for assassination bid on Iraqi premier
Two Iraqi security officials, speaking to Reuters on Monday on condition of anonymity, said the Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq groups carried out the attack in tandem.
A militia source said that Kataib Hezbollah was involved and that he could not confirm the role of Asaib.
Neither group commented for the record.
The main winner from the election, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is a rival of the Iran-backed groups who, unlike them, preaches Iraqi nationalism and opposes all foreign interference, including American and Iranian.
Malik said the drone strike indicated that the Iran-backed militias are positioning themselves in opposition to Sadr, who also boasts a militia – a scenario that would hurt Iran's influence and therefore would likely be opposed by Tehran.
"I don't think Iran wants a civil war. It would weaken its position in Iraq and allow other groups to grow stronger," he said.
Many Iran-aligned militias have watched Sadr's political rise with concern, fearing he may strike a deal with Kadhimi and moderate allies, and even minority Sunni Muslims and Kurds, that would freeze them out of power.
The Iran-backed groups regard Kadhimi as both Sadr's man and friendly towards Tehran's arch-foe the United States.
Also read: In Iraq, big neighbour Iran faces growing backlash
Iran-backed militias have led cries of fraud in the Oct. 10 election but offered no evidence. Since then their supporters have staged weeks of protests near Iraqi government buildings.
Made in Iran
One of the Iraqi security officials said the drones used were of the "quadcopter" type and that each was carrying one projectile containing high explosives capable of damaging buildings and armoured vehicles.
The official added that these were the same type of Iranian-made drones and explosives used in attacks this year on US forces in Iraq, which Washington blames on Iran-aligned militias including Kataib Hezbollah.
The United States last month targeted Iran's drone programme with new sanctions, saying Tehran's elite Revolutionary Guards had deployed drones against US forces, Washington's regional allies and international shipping.