Iraq has released an Iran-aligned armed group commander who was arrested in May on terrorism-related charges after authorities found insufficient evidence against him.
Two Iraqi officials said Qasim Mahmoud Muslih was released at 8am (05:00 GMT) on Wednesday.
His supporters greeted him with hugs and kisses on Baghdad’s central Jadriya Bridge, taking photos and videos with him to celebrate.
Muslih, from the southern holy city of Karbala, was arrested on May 26. The military had said the charges were terrorism-related but did not give details.
He is the head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Anbar province.
Security officials told Reuters news agency at the time that the arrest was linked to attacks on US forces stationed in Iraq. Some media and analysts said it was because of Muslih’s alleged involvement in the killing of peaceful pro-democracy activists.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has placed himself publicly in opposition to Iran-backed militias and parties, and Muslih’s arrest was a major attempt to rein in their power.
His release without prosecution is a blow to those efforts and one of a number of unsuccessful attempts to crack down on armed groups.
The two most high-profile moves against Iran-backed factions – Muslih’s arrest and the detention in June 2020 of fighters allegedly involved in rocket fire against US targets – have each resulted in no prosecutions and all of those arrested being released.
On both occasions, heavily armed militiamen stormed Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, where foreign embassies and government buildings are located, threatening al-Kadhimi.
After Muslih’s arrest, al-Kadhimi held a meeting with key Shia leaders to quell hostilities. Based on the meeting’s outcome, Muslih was taken into PMF custody.
An investigative committee comprised of officials from the defence and interior ministries, National Security and the PMF was formed to look into his case. Muslih was in the custody of the Joint Operations Command during that time. The JOC oversees an array of Iraqi security forces.
On Monday, his file was sent to a PMF investigative judge, who ordered his release.