Senior Iraqi Militia Commander Arrested Amid Government Showdown
Iraqi security forces on Wednesday arrested a senior paramilitary leader in an extent that will increase tensions with powerful Iranian-backed militias accused of attacks on international troops and killing hundreds of protesters and activists.
The arrest puts security forces loyal to Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi in the military and counterterrorism services in direct conflict with the militias that make up an organization of state-sanctioned groups.
Qassim Musleh, head of operations for the Popular Mobilization Forces in Anbar, was reportedly arrested by soldiers from the Ministry of the Interior.
It is still unclear why Mr Musleh was arrested, but an arrest warrant, widely circulated on social media and confirmed by a court official, said he was wanted for terrorism.
Mr. Al Kadhimi said that one person was arrested in accordance with terrorism laws and on the basis of complaints against him.
The person is being investigated by a joint committee of the Joint Cooperation Command, the Interior Ministry and Military Intelligence Services, the PM’s Department of National Security and Security, a t -he declares.
Mr. Al Kadhimi said the armed groups constituted a “dangerous violation of the Iraqi constitution and applicable laws” and ordered an immediate investigation.
Official sources said The National that Mr. Musleh was arrested in connection with the killings of activists. This was confirmed by the Associated Press which quoted four security officials as confirming that charges were linked to the killing of activists in the southern town of Kabala on the orders of the Anti-Corruption Committee headed by Lt. Gen. Ahmed Abu Ragheef.
Reuters reported that Mr Musleh’s arrest was linked to a recent rocket attack on the Iraqi-US base of Al Asad. Its troops are stationed not far from the base.
“A mutual military and security committee has been formed to investigate this matter,” a government source told the Iraqi News Agency.
Iranian-backed influential Hezbollah Kataib in Iraq accused Al Kadhimi of deliberately turning to senior PMF leaders and demanded the immediate release of Mr. Musleh.
“We will not remain silent on the hostile approach of certain personalities who work for the benefit of the enemies,” he said.
The UK supported Mr Al Kadhimi’s investigation.
“The Iraqis have called for a state where those who break the law are held to account,” he said on Twitter.
“No one should use force and threats to prevent criminal investigations.”
In a show of force, the PMF stationed fighters around its headquarters inside Baghdad’s green zone on Wednesday evening.
Mr. Al Kadhimi’s office and foreign embassies are also inside the area.
The anti-terrorism service, the federal police and the army have also seconded personnel inside and outside the green zone.
Security forces convoys of more than two vehicles have been banned from entering Baghdad or moving through its streets, a government order seen by The National.
Alarmed by the developments, the UN special representative in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plaeschert, said on Twitter that “any case of arrest must take its course, like any Iraqi”.
“And surely no one should resort to a show of force to achieve their ends,” said Ms Hennis-Plaeschert.
“Such behavior weakens the Iraqi state and further erodes public trust. State institutions must be respected at all times. No one is above the law. ”
Since taking office in May, Al Kadhimi has attempted to contain Tehran-backed militias but has so far failed.
Mr Musleh also heads a militia called Al Tufuf, which has worked alongside Iranian-backed groups in Al Qaim, a strategically important town on the border with Syria.
Security forces killed two protesters in Baghdad on Tuesday demanding justice for dozens of murdered activists.
Protesters carried photos of the dead and shouted: “Who killed me?”
Mr. Al Kadhimi has repeatedly promised inquiries into the deaths of protesters.
In June 2020, the country’s counterterrorism force arrested 14 militiamen from Kataib Hezbollah, which plays a leading role in the PMF.
The men were accused of planning a rocket attack on Baghdad’s green zone, but were released days later and the case was closed.
In December, security forces arrested Hamid Al Jazairi, the former deputy commander of Al Khorasani brigades, another prominent Iranian-backed group, and more than a dozen of his supporters.
The next day, the group’s commander, Ali Al Yassiri, was arrested. Officials said they were arrested for corruption.
When Iraqi security forces collapsed in mid-2014 as ISIS swept across northern and western Iraq, volunteers and militias responded to a call from the country’s influential Shiite cleric , Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, to join the fight.
Some of these groups were newly formed and loyal to Mr. Al Sistani, and refrained from attacking international forces or killing demonstrators.
But they have since moved closer to the Iraqi Defense Ministry, leaving other more powerful groups such as Kataib Hezbollah and Al Tufuf to continue operations on behalf of Iran.
As major military operations ended and ISIS was declared defeated at the end of 2017, scores of Shiite militias squabbled over lucrative government reconstruction deals in liberated areas, many of which were in ruins.
Some members of the Iranian-allied faction within the PMF have been accused of murdering activists and protesters since 2019, when pro-reform and anti-Tehran rallies erupted.