The Iraq Report: Militia climbdown erodes faith in the state

A fighter in Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces stands guard next to a wall showing the group's logo outside their headquarters in the capital Baghdad on 13 June, 2021. [Getty]
7 min read
17 June, 2021
The release of a prominent PMF commander, along with subsequent PMF celebrations and attacks on US interests, have further eroded trust in the Iraqi state's ability to rein in violent militias.

Domestic trust and faith in Iraq's political and electoral system have been at dangerously low levels for years, due to a combination of corruption, patronage, nepotism, and unchecked state and militia violence.

However, the release of a prominent militia commander, Qasim Muslih, after allegations he had ordered the killing of a prominent activist, Ihab al-Wazni, last month has led to mounting pressure for Iraqis to boycott the upcoming October elections.

As if to punctuate the weakness of the Iraqi government, Shia militias backed by Iran almost immediately launched several rockets and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, including the use of "suicide" drones against US logistics networks and military bases housing American troops.

With the ongoing nuclear talks between the Biden administration and Tehran progressing in Vienna, it may well be the case that Iran is trying to shore up its leverage by, once again, using Iraq as leverage over the US.

"The release of Qasim Muslih further eroded trust in the Iraqi state's ability to rein in violent militias"

PMF commander released as calls for election boycott increase

The release of Muslih, a senior commander in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), on the orders of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and the following celebratory PMF parades, further eroded trust in the Iraqi state's ability to rein in violent militias.

The PMF was founded following a fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in 2014, an Iranian cleric living in Najaf and Shia Islam's highest authority.

Although it began life as an umbrella organisation encompassing dozens of largely Shia militias, many with close ties to Iran, it has since been recognised as a formal branch of the Iraqi armed forces and its fighters earn government salaries. 

Iraqis stand next to a placard depicting renowned anti-government activist Ihab al-Wazni, who was shot dead in an ambush earlier this month, as they demonstrate in Tahrir Square in Baghdad on May 25, 2021. [Getty]
Iraqis stand next to a placard depicting murdered anti-government activist Ihab al-Wazni as they demonstrate in Tahrir Square in Baghdad on 25 May 2021. [Getty]

Although the PMF is nominally under the command of Kadhimi, many experts suggest that it takes orders from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington.

Muslih's arrest in late May on allegations that he was responsible for ordering the murder of Ihab al-Wazni, a prominent dissident organiser in the Shia shrine city of Karbala, triggered a tense standoff between Kadhimi on one side and pro-Iran militants on the other. 

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Despite promising not to cave to pressure, Kadhimi had no choice but set Muslih free when a judge ordered his release due to "insufficient evidence."

Previously, and in a separate attempt by Kadhimi to bring Shia militants to justice last summer, a judge connected to the PMF ordered the release of 14 Kataib Hezbollah fighters, another group that has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the US.

Once again, the judge responsible for determining charges against Muslih was affiliated with the PMF, who have infiltrated the justice system. Iraq is known to have a heavily politicised judiciary unable to fairly try powerful militants and politicians.

"The prime minister's failures have led to declining trust in the political process and to fears that Iraq has developed into a 'gangster state' where violence and political connections reign supreme"

The timing of Muslih's release has been linked to the visit of IRGC Quds Force Commander Esmail Ghaani. Muslih was released as soon as Ghaani touched down in Baghdad, suggesting Iranian intervention on the militant's behalf.

By failing to press charges against Muslih, who had openly admitted that a Sunni town had been subjected to sectarian cleansing, the prestige and authority of the prime minister's office has suffered yet another blow.

Despite all of his promises to the protesters, who began calling for increased rights, transparency, and accountability in 2019, Kadhimi has been unable to rein in the militants even though they are beneath him in the chain of command.

The prime minister's failures have led to declining trust in the political process and to fears that Iraq has developed into a "gangster state" where violence and political connections reign supreme rather than rule of law.

Boycotting October elections

In circumstances like these, it is not surprising that Iraqis, having spent years demonstrating and suffering from state-sponsored violence, are planning to boycott the elections due in October this year.

The last election, in 2018, attracted a paltry turnout of only 44.5% and was widely viewed as lacking legitimacy. It provided a non-commanding majority to a coalition of Shia Islamists and communists led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who was later involved in anti-protester violence.

Demonstrators in Nasiriyah, protesting unemployment, corruption, and inadequate public services were repressed by supporters of the Sadrist movement.  Three protesters died, and 70 were injured on 4 December, 2020. [Getty]
Demonstrators in Nasiriyah, protesting unemployment, corruption, and inadequate public services were repressed by supporters of the Sadrist movement. Three protesters died, and 70 were injured on 4 December 2020. [Getty]

By the time the elections come in October, it would have been three and a half years since politicians were last voted into office and since they last had a chance to fix Iraq's ailing economy and social and political environment.

The current government has presided over continued failures and the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators, with thousands more arrested and subjected to torture.

Now, with Kadhimi's failure to bring corrupt politicians and violent militias to justice, confidence in Iraq's political process is at an all-time low and the turnout for the upcoming elections could be even worse than before.

"The string of attacks against the interests of Kadhimi and the US is likely to be understood as Iran's way of ramping up pressure on the Biden administration as the two parties continue negotiations in Vienna"

Iran proxies use 'suicide' drones to attack US bases

Muslih's release was heralded by several attacks, likely conducted by Iran-backed Shia militias, on bases housing US troops and assets.

Just prior to Muslih's release, the Ain al-Asad Airbase in Iraq's sprawling Anbar governorate was targeted. However, the US has deployed its Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar system, more commonly known as C-RAM, which shot down the drones before they made impact.

An attack on Balad Airbase in Baghdad occurred immediately after Muslih's release, with at least five rockets fired at the base, causing minimal damage and no casualties.

Separately, on the same day, two rockets or guided drones armed with munitions bombarded a section of Baghdad International Airport in which US forces and contractors are active.

As reported in the last issue of The Iraq Report, the Pentagon has been concerned at the increased use of "suicide" drones by militants to evade radar detection and accurately strike military sites and even CIA installations in the country.

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The Ain al-Asad base was targeted by Iranian-made drones a month earlier.

Reports also indicate that an Iraqi intelligence officer was assassinated by Tehran-backed militants in what was deemed to be a retaliatory attack for Muslih's arrest.

The string of attacks against the interests of Kadhimi and the US is likely to be understood as Iran's way of ramping up pressure on the Biden administration as the two parties continue negotiations in Vienna over the future shape of the Iran nuclear deal.

While G7 leaders met at a UK summit over the weekend, reaffirming their commitment to preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, EU coordinators at the Vienna talks suggested that the differences between the two sides had narrowed, according to the Associated Press.

However, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi poured cold water on the EU negotiators' statements and told Iranian state media that it was unlikely that a deal would be struck in the coming week, while a Russian diplomat said more time was needed to work out the details.

"Iraqis who oppose militia rule in Iraq are swiftly running out of options"

To further its position, Iran is likely to apply pressure on the US elsewhere, and the arena where they both have the most presence is undoubtedly Iraq.

The Iran nuclear talks would certainly go some way in explaining the release of Muslih to coincide with the IRGC's Ghaani's visit, and also the subsequent ramping up of attacks on US interests.

Given Biden's reluctance to strike effective targets inside Iraq, favouring instead to strike remote Iraqi militia targets in Syria, it is likely that Iran will use continued interference with American interests in Iraq as leverage to obtain a favourable outcome in Vienna.

Coupled with the White House's reluctance to come to Kadhimi's aid in his standoff against the PMF and Muslih, it would appear that Iraqis who oppose militia rule in Iraq are swiftly running out of options.

This helplessness may lead them to abandon peaceful protest, igniting yet another civil war less than two decades since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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