Tensions in Baghdad after arrest of paramilitary commander
Qasem Muslih, a local commander in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a network of Iran-backed, mostly Shia Muslim, militias, is accused of targeting leading pro-democracy activists.
PMF factions have been accused of a wave of murders of pro-democracy activists and journalists since protests erupted in 2019, as well as the sectarian killing and the mass displacement of Sunni Muslims.
Muslih is accused of giving the order to kill anti-government campaigner Ihab Al-Wazni, who was shot outside his home by men on motorbikes on 9 May in the holy city of Karbala, as well as Fahim Al-Taie, an activist who was killed in December 2019.
The killing of Al-Wazni had sparked deadly protests calling for an end to official impunity.
Muslih’s arrest is said to be tied to his alleged involvement in recent attacks on Ain Al-Assad air base, which hosts foreign - including US - troops.
🧵Just so you all know, Qasem Muslih held responsibility for Shia shrine protection in Karbala while also heading up the PMF in Iraq's Anbar. In 2018, he admitted the Sunni Arab population of Jurf al-Sakhr had been totally cleansed & would never be allowed back - a war crime.— Dr Tallha Abdulrazaq (@DrTalAbdulrazaq) May 26, 2021
Fearing reprisals from armed groups, Iraqi forces and counter-terrorism troops have been deployed to guard key government facilities in Baghdad, including the office of Iraqi PM Mustapha Al-Kadhimi.
Officials are on high alert over possible reprisal attacks on US-led coalition forces and assets in the country. On Thursday, an IED struck a coalition logistics convoy in southern Iraq.
A member of Iraq's parliamentary council who spoke to a The New Arab’s Arabic-language service on a condition of anonymity, explained the fears.
"It is expected that [armed] groups will respond to Muslih's arrest and that they’ll escalate attacks on US interests and the Green Zone," they said.
The official pointed to Al-Kadhimi's order to indefinitely bolster security in and around the heavily fortified government zone.
This included instructions for the nighttime mobilisation of troops and the closure of several key roads.
While the trial of individuals and groups thought to behind the killings of activists has long been a demand of Iraq’s anti-government protesters, pro-Iran factions see Musleh's arrest as an overture to the US.
Tehran-backed militias are believed to be behind attacks on Washington’s forces and assets in Iraq, with the aim of driving coalition troops out of the country.