By John Davison
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi talked tough after the killing of a high-profile analyst and government advisor, pledging to hunt down his assailants and curb the actions of armed groups.
But the face-off between the U.S.-friendly Iraqi leader and powerful Iran-backed militias whom his entourage privately blames for Monday's murder of Hisham al-Hashemi indicates how difficult this will be.
A series of bold moves by Kadhimi in his first two months in office, including two unsuccessful arrest raids against militias, showed the limits of his power in the face of hostile groups with influence across state institutions, according to government officials, politicians and diplomats.
Kadhimi in May succeeded Adel Abdul Mahdi, during whose tenure Iraqi militias loyal to Iran's theocratic government deepened their sway over Iraq's politics and economy.
Abdul Mahdi was toppled last year during mass anti-government protests in which hundreds of demonstrators were killed.
Political insiders believe the killing of Hashemi is part of the tussle with Kadhimi and leaves him with a stark choice: take on the militias, or back down and lose face.
Hashemi, a well-known analyst who had advised the government on defeating Sunni Muslim Islamic State militants and curbing the influence of the pro-Iran Shi'ite militias, was gunned down outside his Baghdad family home on Monday by men on a motorbike.
Iran-aligned paramilitary officials deny any role in the killing. Some Islamic State supporters cheered his death, but no group has claimed the murder nor been fingered publicly by the government.
Some close to Kadhimi say the killing related directly to Hashemi's recent work on pro-Iran groups.
"He'd been threatened over the phone by men from a militia three days before his death, warning him over publishing articles," one government official who spoke to him about those threats said.
The official and a second government source close to Kadhimi said Hashemi had been advising on plans to curb the power of pro-Iran groups, and bring smaller paramilitaries who oppose Iran under closer state control.
"This is why he was killed – they saw his work as an existential threat," the first official said.
Hashemi's work also dealt with how to wrest control of Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign missions, from Iran-aligned groups, they said.
BOLD RAIDS, QUICK RELEASES
Those paramilitaries showed how easily they could overrun the Green Zone last month after Iraqi forces arrested 14 fighters from one accused of involvement in rocket attacks on U.S. installations.
Militiamen drove vehicles into the zone to pressure authorities to release their comrades. All but one were released in the following days.
A raid in southern Basra in May failed to bring any prosecutions. Security forces had arrested members of the Iran-aligned Tharallah group, accused of shooting protesters, and closed their headquarters.
Those detained were released and the office reopened, police said. In both cases judges cited lack of evidence to prosecute the militiamen.
The United States, which is in talks with Kadhimi over Washington's future relationship with Baghdad, praised the June raid. But that angered powerful groups which already viewed Kadhimi with suspicion as being too friendly towards Washington.
Qais al-Khazali, the leader of one Iran-aligned group, said Kadhimi's duty as premier was to hold early elections and deal with economic and health crises, not to take on militias.
Senior paramilitary official Ahmed al-Asadi criticized his first moves in office.
"Factions felt targeted by Kadhimi's actions. They were already angry that he was in talks with the U.S. without involving negotiators from more of Iraq's political parties," he said.
Pro-Iran groups demand the government set a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq whose primary task is fighting Islamic State but who are reducing their numbers.
Kadhimi's supporters say without standing up to militias any efforts at political and fiscal reform in Iraq will be piecemeal. But they said his decision to go after militias so publicly could put his leadership in jeopardy and will hamper his ability to undertake any reform.
One senior politician said Kadhimi needed to focus less on his busy social media posting and more on strengthening his position before taking on powerful armed groups.
"Things are looking bad. Kadhimi made a big mistake in raising expectations about what he wants to deliver, and he's losing face. His move against Kataib Hezbollah was right but at the wrong time," he said.
Kadhimi's media office said the premier was "doing his best" in the face of security and fiscal challenges that have mounted since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Another senior government official said Hashemi's killing was a sign of desperation. "When you feel threatened you act this way. If you're strong you don't need to kill an analyst."
Analysts say if Kadhimi loses the political elite he will need support from ordinary Iraqis to survive. But some of those are losing faith.
A pledge to release protesters detained last year has brought no releases, the semi-official Human Rights Commission says.
Most painful for Iraqi activists is that the country remains a U.S.-Iran battleground.
"Iraq is split between politicians who side with either of the two occupiers," said Hassan Adel, an activist who demands the end of U.S. and Iranian involvement in Iraq.
"We don't trust any of them."
(Reporting by John Davison, additional reporting by Amina Ismail in Cairo; Editing by Angus MacSwan)