Muslih’s release likely part of deal compelling militias to stop anti-US strikes in Iraq

Qaani visits Baghdad to make sure the pro-Iran militias remain under the authority of the Revolutionary Guards.
Thursday 10/06/2021
Qassim Mahmoud Musleh, center with mask, head of the PMF in Anbar province, is welcomed by his supporters, in Karbala, Iraq, June 9, 2021. (AP)
Qassim Mahmoud Muslih, center with mask, head of the PMF in Anbar province, is welcomed by his supporters, in Karbala, Iraq, June 9, 2021. (AP)

BAGHDAD – Tehran made every effort to prevent Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi from strengthening the state’s influence over Iran-backed militias and armed organisations. The pressure it applied led to the release of the Popular Mobilisation Forces’ (PMF) leading figure, Qasim Muslih, Wednesday.

Sources told The Arab Weekly that this step was taken only after an agreement was reached obliging the militias to stop striking at US targets in Iraq.

Muslih’s release coincided with the arrival in Baghdad of Esmail Qaani, commander of the Quds Force, the foreign intervention force within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iraqi political sources said that Qaani’s agenda during his meetings with the PMF leadership will also focus on imposing electoral alliances between Shia forces so as to prevent a shift in power in favour of the pro-sovereignty forces.

They added that the commander of the Quds Force will also meet Kadhimi to confirm that the militias will stay under the authority of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, especially when it comes to the launching of missiles at the US embassy building and using drones against American forces in Iraqi camps.

Qaani’s message is seen as Iran’s  response to a US embassy insistence during contacts with Kadhimi on a halt to the launch of rockets by the militias and its warning that “If the Iraqi government does not act, we will act.”

The problem continues as rockets hit near US forces and contractors in Iraq on Wednesday, including an air base north of Baghdad and a military base at Baghdad International Airport.

The army reported at least three rockets hit Balad air base, where US contractors are based.

Security officials told Reuters at least one rocket hit shortly afterwards near the airport at a base which US military aircraft use.

Following the announcement of Muslih’s arrest two weeks ago pro-Iranian factions staged a show of force at the entrance of the Green Zone in the Iraqi capital. Government headquarters and embassies, including the US embassy are based in the zone.

Iran needs to make sure of the militias’ obedience to its authority before any progress on international negotiations over its nuclear programme can be made, analysts in Baghdad said.

On Wednesday, Muslih, accused of assassinating protest movement figures, was released days after his arrest as part of a probe over his activities by the Iraqi authorities.  His release sparked a wave of resentment among activists who accused the Iraqi government of reneging on its promises to hold criminals accountable. But the Iraqi government held the judiciary responsible for the release of Muslih.

It stressed that it had  “provided all the evidence related to Muslih’s activities, but the judiciary took the decision to release him due to pressures.”

Officially, the judiciary released Muslih due to lack of evidence provided by the Iraqi government about his alleged implication in terrorist acts and violations against demonstrators.

A government source told AFP that in fact  the evidence included “Telephone communications between Muslih and the direct perpetrators, threats to relatives, witness testimony, explanations received under questioning” that prove Muslih’s involvement in the assassinations, while the judiciary nevertheless asserted it did not have sufficient proof to continue detaining him.

A well-informed source in Baghdad confirmed to The Arab Weekly that the release of Muslih came against the background of an understanding between the Iraqi government and the leaders of the PMF by which the militias would stop targeting the US embassy in Baghdad as well as Iraqi bases hosting US forces in some provinces.

The source said it  is expected simmering tensions to remain despite the semblance of calm during the months before the parliamentary elections scheduled for next October.

But he wondered whether the pledges Qaani would make to Kadhimi about the militias’ allegiance to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards would be a sufficient guarantee to prevent them targeting of the Green Zone sites, again and again.

An Iraqi MP ruled out the possibility that Iran has lost control over some of its militias in Iraq, or that there are one or more militias that have decided to act independently of Iranian control.

The MP told The Arab Weekly that “what happens from time to time is that the Quds Force, which is the direct supervisor of the work of these militias, reorganises their work, which gives the impression some of them operate on their own account without deferring to Iranian instructions.”

The parliamentarian stressed that “it is all an illusion, not only because the militias are just an Iranian industry, but also because the militias do not have a national reference point and were not created to carry out the duty of protecting the Iraqi state, as is alleged.”

The armed militias are keen to consolidate the notion of the parallel state, at times referred to as “the non-state”.

A clash was seen as  inevitable between the PMF and the government, which tried to restore respect to the judiciary through its arrest of Muslih.

Observers believe that the judges’ release of Muslih on  grounds of insufficient evidence means that a settlement has been reached  at a level above the ability of the Kadhimi government to continue its efforts to rein in the militias.

The judiciary’s decision to release Muslih constituted a face-saving way out for the Kadhimi government, which was careful not to appear as weak in the face of PMF threats.

The general intent at this particular juncture  is not to allow the PMF to appear as the strongest party in the political balance in Iraq.

Observers unanimously agree that there will be no winner nor loser in the showdown, even though the ultimate result will be that Kadhimi will lose a lot of his credibility and popularity. That will also lead to the expansion of the non-state’s power in the face of governmental caution.

Iraqi political analyst Mustafa Kamel described what happened as a confirmation of the ongoing policy of impunity in Iraq, despite all the compelling evidence presented to the court, some of which was oral, all confirming the involvement of Muslih  in the murders of activists.

This means that justice for the victims of the October Revolution will have to wait.

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Kamel added  that “the release of Muslih confirms that no authority is above the authority of the militias, no decision is above their decision and no weapons are above their weapons;”

He pointed out also that everything that is said about the PMF’s affiliation with the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in Iraq and the claims that they are part of the official military establishment are meaningless assertions that irrelevant to the Iraqi context.

He added that Qaani’s arrival in Baghdad on the day of Muslih’s release carried more than one meaning, as it strengthened the position of the Iran-backed militias and confirmed that they cannot be touched and that nothing happens in Iraq without their approval.

Shaho Al-Qara Daghi, adviser to the New Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, said that this suspicion will tarnish the reputation of the judiciary, the security forces and the government.

He stressed that this case will send a negative signal about the ability of these official bodies to hold the leaders of the PMF accountable and prosecute them in future cases.

Qaradaghi told The Arab Weekly that the coming days will reveal whether there was a deal that closed this case, or whether the government actually submitted to threats without anything in exchange.

Independent Iraqi politician Jabbar al-Mashhadani wondered why Muslih was arrested in the first place and if  there were indeed sufficient and valid reasons for the arrest, then why was he released and were those reasons annulled or refuted?

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Mashhadani described the the PMF leader’s release as reflecting a state of chaos in the taking of decisions and confirming that the current political process is determined by understandings and mutual benefits.

He did not rule out that Kadhimi had tried to measure the reaction of the pro-Iran factions as and when he decided to confront them. If that were the case, the factions have proven beyond any doubt that they still have the upper hand.