The Iraq Report: Iraq and Iran's proxies in deadly staredown

Demonstrators gather to protest against assassinations of civil activists at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq on 25 May, 2021. [Getty]
7 min read
02 June, 2021
The arrest of a prominent commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces has triggered a tense standoff between the Iraqi government and Iran-backed militias.

The Iraqi federal government and pro-Iran Shia militias are engaged in a high-stakes deadlock after the government ordered the arrest of a senior commander in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) on terrorism charges

While neither side looks ready to budge in this staredown, previous attempts by the authorities to curtail militia activities have resulted in government capitulation and the release of Iran-backed extremists.

The reignited protest movement, first beginning in 2019, serves as the backdrop to this standoff. Iraqi protesters are returning to the streets after years of unfulfilled promises of investigations and accountability. So far, no senior militiamen have been held accountable for the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators.

With elections looming, civil society groups are now increasingly calling for people to boycott the polls, which would further delegitimise an already frail Iraqi political process.

"The Iraqi federal government and pro-Iran Shia militias are engaged in a high-stakes deadlock after the government ordered the arrest of a senior commander in the Popular Mobilisation Forces"

Threats of violence after Qasem Muslih's arrest

Qasem Muslih, a senior commander in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), was unexpectedly arrested last week after being implicated in attacks on American diplomatic and military sites. He was also accused of giving the order to assassinate a prominent activist earlier this month.

Ihab al-Wazni, a prominent anti-corruption activist and protest organiser, was killed on 9 May by masked men outside his home in the Shia shrine city of Karbala. Wazni's family blamed the slaying on Muslih, the PMF commander responsible for Shia shrine protection in Karbala and in command of the PMF's operations in the western Sunni governorate of Anbar.

While Muslih evaded any immediate, formal repercussions, the lack of accountability and the continued deadly attacks against protesters forced Iraqis to reignite the protest movement of 2019 that had been paused by Covid-19.

In-depth
Live Story

In an attempt to appease demonstrators, caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ordered the arrest of Muslih, who was taken to an as yet unidentified secure location in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

This led to several highly armed squads of militiamen besieging the Green Zone, triggering the deployment of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), Iraq's elite fighting force armed and trained by the US and directly under Kadhimi's command.

Eventually, the PMF fighters withdrew from the Green Zone. Militia media outlets announced that the withdrawal was due to an agreement that Muslih would be released.

The PMF left the immediate confines of the Green Zone, but maintain a heavy presence in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the government has stated that Muslih will remain in custody "until the investigation is concluded," and has deployed CTS units around key federal buildings, seemingly in an attempt to secure the government from any potential large scale attack that could lead to its overthrow.

"The PMF, a collection of pro-Iran and largely Shia militant factions, has acted with impunity for years"

Last year, the arrest of 14 Kataib Hezbollah militiamen led to a PMF-backed siege of the Green Zone. After this attack, a judge loyal to the PMF ordered the release of the militants due to a "lack of evidence."

Idris al-Sabbagh, a business owner in Baghdad, told The New Arab that he has been hesitant to reopen his commercial premises for fear that any potential fighting or even the ongoing demonstrations would damage his business.

"Last time [in 2019], some protesters sought refuge in one of my shops," Sabbagh said. "Masked men with clubs and knives came in, beat the demonstrators, smashed my property and the government refused to compensate me."

"This time, there are armed militias roaming the streets, police forces usually escorting them, and then the army and Counter Terrorism Service on the other side guarding government buildings but not public property. What kind of a state is this?" Sabbagh said. 

In 2019, the PMF, Iraqi security forces, and an assortment of Iran-backed militias were accused of using deadly force to quell demonstrators, with estimates of some 650 killed with thousands more arrested, tortured, or disappeared.

Members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), paramilitaries walk in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on 26 October, 2019. [Getty]
Members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) paramilitaries walk in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on 26 October 2019. [Getty]

Muslih's violent past

In 2018, Muslih admitted to the sectarian cleansing of Sunnis from nearby Jurf al-Sakhr during the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group, adding that they would "never be allowed to return."

Jurf al-Sakhr was cleansed of its Sunni inhabitants from the Janabi tribe and has since been renamed Jurf al-Nasr and re-populated by Shia Arab communities linked to powerful militias such as Kataib Hezbollah, which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the US.

The PMF, a collection of pro-Iran and largely Shia militant factions, has acted with impunity for years. It is implicated in war crimes against Iraq's Sunni Arabs and faces allegations of brutalising protesters.

In two separate votes in 2016 and 2017, the Iraqi Parliament formally recognised the PMF as an arm of the Iraqi military.

"The drone strikes in Erbil were the primary reason Muslih was detained. The killing of protesters was only a subtext to justify the arrest"

This formal recognition of the PMF raises some international and domestic legal difficulties for the Iraqi government as it means any human rights abuses or war crimes committed by the PMF could in turn implicate the Iraqi state itself.

This would be highly inconvenient for the ruling Iraqi elite as a significant part of the logic behind the US-led invasion in 2003 that brought them to power was that former dictator Saddam Hussein had himself perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity – allegations they now face themselves.

Possible US involvement

Another facet to Muslih's arrest relates to the power plays of both Iran and the US.

According to The Washington Post, Shia militias working at the behest of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched several drone attacks on CIA and military bases as well as diplomatic sites in the months leading to Muslih's arrest.

Described as the US military mission's "biggest concern in Iraq," IRGC-backed proxies launched a drone strike in April on a CIA hangar inside the airport complex in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish semi-autonomous enclave.

Iraq Report
Live Story

This was followed by a second drone strike in May on the sprawling Ain al-Assad base in Anbar, the governorate Qasim Muslih enjoys authority over as a senior PMF commander.

Iraqi opposition groups told The New Arab that they believe the drone strikes were the primary reason Muslih was detained. The killing of protesters was only a subtext to justify the arrest.

"Our sources in Iraq inform us that Muslih is being held at the American embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone," Ahmed al-Mahmud of the London-based Foreign Relations Bureau of Iraq, one such opposition group, told The New Arab.

Mourner at funeral of assassinated Ihab al-Wazni. [Getty]
A mourner at the funeral of anti-government activist Ihab al-Wazni, who was killed on 9 May in Karbala. [Getty]

"The American response towards protesters being killed was muted, just a condemnation from [State Department spokesman Ned] Price. This shows that Washington does not really care about the demonstrators," Mahmud said.

The New Arab was not able to independently verify this information but, if true, it suggests that Muslih's arrest has more to do with regional power politics than the domestic murder of protesters. This has been a common theme in Iraq for 17 years.

When asked why the Iraqi government has continued to resist calls for Muslih's release, the Iraqi opposition activist stated that Baghdad was better able to push back because it had Washington’s support.

"Iraq could once more be the site of a proxy conflict between the two powers applying leverage against one another, with potentially devastating consequences for the Iraqi people"

"The Shia militias have been killing protesters for years, first the Sunnis until IS was an issue in late 2013, and now Shia Arabs. There were no arrests then and the only difference now is that the US is being targeted by these groups," Mahmud said.

While Prime Minister Kadhimi has expressed his desire to clean up Iraq's political system, other Iraq experts have recently highlighted his failed attempts to bring the killers of even his friends to justice, such as in the assassination of noted terrorism scholar Hisham al-Hashimi last summer.

With the US and Iran increasingly jockeying for position with regard to the renegotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, Iraq could once more be the site of a proxy conflict between the two powers applying leverage against one another, with potentially devastating consequences for the Iraqi people.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab

Click here to see the full archive

The Iraq Report