Musleh episode shows Iraq’s PMF mightier than the law

Hashed commander Qassem Musleh was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the assassination of activist Ihab al-Wazni. He is since said to have been handed over to Hashed security.

Friday 28/05/2021
Iraqi soldiers take part in security deployment in Baghdad, Iraq, May 26, 2021. (REUTERS)
Iraqi soldiers take part in security deployment in Baghdad, Iraq, May 26, 2021. (REUTERS)

BAGHDAD - Despite conflicting reports about the release of a prominent leader in the Popular Mobilisation Forces, (PMF) Qassem Musleh, or his transfer to the security building of the pro-Iranian militia, attention has turned to the weapons held by the Shia militias that make up the PMF.

Baghdad spent a tense night after the deployment of the PMF while heavily-armed military forces and tanks from the Special Division of the Anti-Terrorism Service closed the entrances to the Green Zone and the nearby streets.

The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi says that Musleh, who was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the assassination of activist Ihab al-Wazni, the head of the protest coordination commission in Karbala, is still in the custody of the joint operations command until the end of the investigation with him.

A statement issued after a meeting that included, in addition to Kadhimi, the President of the Republic Barham Saleh, the Speaker of Parliament Mohammad al-Halbousi and the President of the Supreme Judicial Council Judge Faiq Zaidan, said  that “the recent events adversely affect the national efforts aimed at achieving security and stability and preserving the prestige of the state.”

The meeting stressed that “the continuing security turmoil and infringement on the state’s authority and its right to hold security and military decisions represent a serious violation of the state’s authority in enforcing the law and protecting the security of citizens, and exposes the country’s stability to real risks.”

Observers believe this position reflected a consensus among the state institutions confronting the militias and thus buttressed Kadhimi’s position on the issue of Musleh.

However, sources from within the Hashed asserted that the Joint Operations handed Musleh over to the PMF Security Directorate at 5 am on Thursday.

Falih Khazali, an MP with the “Al-Fateh” coalition (which includes the majority of the PMF) in parliament, announced, in a tweet via Twitter, “The release of the Anbar Operations Commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, Qassem Musleh and his handover to the security department of the Hashed.”

He added, “It is not permissible to arrest any affiliated member in the defence, interior, counterterrorism apparatus and the Hashed except by the party to which the affiliated member belongs.”

For his part, the director of information in the PMF Muhannad al-Uqabi, said, “The matter is over and the sedition has ended,” referring to the end of Musleh’s arrest.

So far, no picture has been published of the release or handover of Muslih to Hashed security, which confirms the leaks according to which there has been a special agreement to hand Musleh over to the Hashed, with a pledge to keep him in detention and refrain from publishing any pictures of him.

The entire process revealed the hold that the PMF has over decision making by the Iraqi government and has completely shattered the authority of the state. Analysts say that the PMF’s weapons seem mightier than the force of law. Talk about reform will now ring hollow even if it materialises after next October’s elections.

PMF popular mobilisation forces surround the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, where the Prime Minister’s Office are located. (AP)
PMF popular mobilisation forces surround the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, where the Prime Minister’s Office are located. (AP)

However, sources close to the government lauded Kadhimi’s defiance of the Hashed and the audacity he showed by Musleh’s arrest. Despite everything else, the arrest operation ushered in a noticeable change in the Iraqi government’s relationship with the PMF, they say.

The sources also revealed to The Arab Weekly that Kadhimi told Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Organisation, one of the most powerful militias under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, that he would go live on television to announce his resignation and blame the Shia parties for the collapse of the state, if the Hashed did not leave the Green Zone.

The sources said that Amiri was surprised by Kadhimi’s “extreme stubbornness” and did not expect him to take such a daring step as arrest a prominent leader like Musleh. The Hashed leaders did not expect Kadhimi to resist his release, despite their intense pressures.

An Iraqi parliamentarian told The Arab Weekly that if it is true that the Popular Mobilisation factions managed to release Musleh, then this would constitute an explicit declaration of the Hashed’s independence from the state,. It would be a public acknowledgment that the pro-Iranian militia is working against the state and that its weapons are illegal.

The MP, who preferred not to be named, asserted that Kadhimi, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, will have to openly declare before the people that the Hashed is an extraneous coup-inclined force that does not support the state and that its weaponry is held illegally,

The MP points out that the Hashed’s victory in the muscle-flexing battle with the prime minister would  have many negative repercussions, but if he wins, Kadhimi can regain his popularity.

For his part, the Iraqi researcher and politician, Hamid Al-Kafa’i, confirmed that the Kadhimi government came to power endorsing the call to keep weapons exclusively in the hands of the state and eliminate corruption. However, it did not accomplish any of its stated goals. It only suceeded in projecting a weak image of the Iraqi state, which undermined the people’s confidence in it.

Kafa’i told The Arab Weekly that the prime minister is weak and should have forcefully confronted the militias from the beginning in order to impose the authority of the state. In that kind of endeavour, he would have received the support of the Iraqi people, the international community and most of the countries in the region.

He added that the Iraqi people and the international community want a strong government that leads a strong state, but the present government, and its predecessors are weak because of their subordination to Iran and their submission to armed groups that do not give any weight to the state’s sovereignty.

The UN Special Representative to Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, denounced the show of force by armed groups in the Green Zone.

“Any arrest case should run its course, as goes for any Iraqi. Nobody should resort to a show of force to get their way”, said Plasschaert.

“Such behaviour weakens the Iraqi state and further erodes public trust”, she added.

Against the background of Musleh’s arrest, for some time Wednesday, PMF forces surrounded the prime minister’s house and other locations in the Green Zone in central Baghdad, where there are officials ‘homes, government institutions and foreign diplomatic missions’ headquarters,.

Kadhimi said after a security meeting on Wednesday evening that “the moves by armed groups in Baghdad on Wednesday are a serious violation, not only of law and order, but of the Iraqi constitution.”