Baghdad, Iraq – It has been a week since the arrest of controversial Iraqi paramilitary leader Qasim Muslih and the reactionary show of force by members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of Iran-backed militias formed in 2014 to fight the ISIL (ISIS) armed group.
Muslih, the PMF’s head of operations in Anbar province, was accused of crimes under Iraq’s anti-terrorism law and of being involved in the killing of activists – including Ihab al-Wazni, whose murder sparked a deadly demonstration earlier this month.
But when the news broke on May 26 of Muslih’s arrest, most Iraq watchers expected the commander to walk free within hours.
Unlike the PMF militiamen who were detained and swiftly released in June last year, the prime minister’s office told Al Jazeera that Muslih was still in the custody of Iraq’s Joint Operations Command and under investigation.
Although his whereabouts remain unclear – local media last week cited security officials saying Muslih had walked free – what became apparent was that arresting a powerful PMF commander could give Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi a boost before the parliamentary elections in October.
This is the “first time Kadhimi moves to arrest a PMF figure with this weight who is also close to Kataib Hezbollah”, said Tamer Badawi, an analyst and associate fellow at the Bonn-based think-tank Carpo, referring to the powerful Iran-backed militia whose 14 members were arrested and promptly released last year.
“Disclosing accusations of assassinating activists and attacking Iraqi bases hosting the coalition forces may have been deliberately designed by the government to garner domestic and foreign support,” said Badawi.
With elections just around the corner and a social movement clamouring for an end to Iranian influence in Iraq, al-Kadhimi stands to benefit from discrediting Tehran’s proxies such as the PMF’s Muslih.
Al-Kadhimi has often gone out of his way to reassure the public that he has no intention of running in the upcoming elections, presenting himself as a mere stepping stone between Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was forced to resign in November 2019, and the next elected leader.
So far al-Kadhimi’s guarantees have done little to abate his political opponents’ suspicions.
And the arrest of a top PMF figure could serve to further stoke the flames of scepticism, with many seeing it as a political move and an attempt to garner the support of the protest movement.
The day before Muslih’s arrest, thousands of people from across the country took to the streets of Baghdad to demand accountability for the killing of more than 600 protesters and activists, with demonstrators pointing the finger firmly at the PMF’s unruly factions.
“Kadhimi is capitalising on the public momentum in terms of the timing [of the arrest],” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq analyst and fellow at The Century Foundation think-tank. “If he manages – at least on the public relations side – to show that he’s doing more to uphold the rule of law then perhaps people will be supportive of that and of him remaining as prime minister.”
As well as the backing of the protest movement and the general public, to be elected, al-Kadhimi must win the support of Iraq’s varied political blocs.
His “attempts to try and limit the influence of pro-Iran groups will likely buy him support from a wide range of players”, said Hamdi Malik, an associate fellow at the Washington Institute think-tank.
“The Sadrists, the Kurds, the Sunnis, some moderate Shias, people associated with the protest movement and the international community.”
Arrests, security threats
What remains to be seen is whether Muslih will be prosecuted or set free like other PMF members before him.
If the arrest holds and if Muslih is charged and convicted, then there could be space for “more such actions against others in the PMF”, said Jiyad.
“It wouldn’t surprise anyone if there are more such [arrests] but then also countermoves … and the possibility of the government struggling to face up to the defiance of some of these groups.”
Shows of force by the PMF and its affiliates are not a new phenomenon in Iraq. In March this year, masked members of the Rab’allah militia paraded through the streets of Baghdad threatening the prime minister, while in June 2020 dozens of armed Kataib Hezbollah fighters blockaded a counterterrorism building in the Green Zone to demand the release of their fellow militiamen.
Just hours after Muslih’s arrest, convoys of PMF fighters poured onto the streets of Baghdad and took over one of the entrances to the Green Zone in a sabre-rattling display of defiance.
However, explained Malik, “this time the security forces’ performance was much better and allowed the prime minister to hold his ground”.
Despite being part of Iraq’s official security forces, the PMF has consistently acted out of its own volition and in ways that have been detrimental to the country’s security, including the killing of protesters and attacks against military bases and diplomatic missions.
“Successive governments since the military victory over ISIS have failed to integrate the PMF,” said Lahib Higel, Crisis Group’s Iraq senior analyst.
“It has become a force in itself, pursuing its own interests, not just military but also economic and political.”
While al-Kadhimi walks the winding road towards elections, militias are likely building deterrence in a myriad of other ways, said Badawi, including parades on the “anniversary of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani‘s Fatwa of Sufficient Jihad … stepping up online propaganda and lobbying by political heavyweights”.
However, experts say further escalation and armed confrontations between the PMF and the government prior to the October elections is unlikely.
“It is no one’s interest. At the end of the day the [PMF] benefits from the state and is able to set limits to the government’s manoeuvrability through threats of violence,” said Higel.
“There is a realisation on all parts that a confrontation may lead to civil war.”