Politics and Governance Iraq Blog Post
Kadhimi Triumphs Over the Militias, At Least for Now
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s arrest and detention of a powerful militia commander signals significant changes in Iraq as the country prepares for parliamentary elections.
Geneive Abdo Jun 1, 2021 العربية
Demonstrators and security forces during an anti-government protest in Baghdad, Iraq, May 25 (REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani)
Geneive Abdo
Visiting Fellow
On May 26, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ordered the arrest of powerful militia commander Qasim Muslih, charged with the extrajudicial killings of peaceful protesters and attacks on an air base hosting U.S. and international troops in Iraq. In ordering the arrest, Kadhimi pitted the Iraqi state directly against Iranian-backed Shia militias.
Days later, the Iraqi state and the rule of law still have the upper hand, unlike in the past. In June 2020, Kadhimi ordered the arrests of 14 Iranian-backed militia fighters as they prepared rocket attacks against Baghdad International Airport. However, after gunmen entered the Green Zone, home to foreign embassies and high-ranking Iraqi officials, and demanded their cohorts’ release, Kadhimi transferred custody to the militias, essentially letting the fighters go free. Kadhimi’s success this time – the arrest and his ability to keep Muslih in detention, despite intimidation from the militias – has won him praise from the United Nations, European Union, and United States because it signals significant changes in Iraq, as the country prepares for parliamentary elections in October.
First and foremost, that the arrest is holding shows that the balance of power between state institutions and the Iranian-backed Shia militias, which fall under the ostensibly official Popular Mobilization Forces but operate outside of government control, could be tipping in favor of the state. As prime minister, Kadhimi is legally in charge of all security forces, and reining in the PMF, an umbrella group comprised of tens of thousands of fighters, is vital to establishing law and order. His move to exert power over the PMF has been a long-standing demand of the international community and many Iraqis.
The arrest of Muslih, commander of the PMF’s Liwa al-Tafuf Brigade, came in response to the killing of protest leader Ehab al-Wazni on May 6 in Karbala. Massive demonstrations erupted at the Iranian Consulate in Karbala immediately after his death – a strong and visible message opposing Iran’s meddling in Iraq. On May 25, sizeable protests erupted again, primarily in Baghdad. The protesters accused Muslih of ordering Wazni’s killing. More than 600 mostly young Iraqis have been killed since demonstrations began in October 2019, according to the U.N. and human rights groups. Armed forces have used live ammunition to kill protest organizers, and militias in the PMF have been accused of targeted assassinations of protest leaders. According to Iraqi officials, Muslih is also accused of involvement in several attacks on Ain al-Asad air base, where the United States and other international forces are housed.
A second signal of change is that now Kadhimi has decided to use the major state security institutions to blunt militia excess – at least in this case. This could portend the increased strength of the state and serve as a significant setback for the PMF. The Counter Terrorism Service, which was largely responsible for the Iraqi defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, captured and arrested Muslih and took him to an undisclosed location by helicopter. The militias then tried to intimidate Kadhimi by deploying their forces to the Green Zone. Militia fighters surrounded the prime minister’s house, according to several media reports.
During a May 26 Cabinet meeting, Kadhimi said the PMF’s show of force in the Green Zone was a “serious violation of the constitution.” Minister of Defense Juma Inad announced that the state would not be intimidated by the militias: “Using a culture of arm-twisting cannot frighten a state or an army.” And, the judiciary, now in charge of the case, stated it will decide Muslih’s fate through due process.
After this firm institutional backing of Kadhimi, during the evening of May 26, the PMF leadership ordered its fighters to withdraw from the Green Zone. But in a desperate attempt to save face, the PMF resorted to propaganda and began circulating videos online wrongly claiming that Muslih had been released. Qais Khazali, the leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, which is aligned with Iran, argued that Muslih should be turned over to the PMF, because it is a branch of the Iraqi state security apparatus.
A third outcome of the arrest could be the strengthening of the protest movement and broader Iraqi civil society’s support for Kadhimi and the state. Pressure from the protesters, who demand punishment for the militia forces that have targeted them since massive demonstrations began in October 2019, was likely a key factor in Kadhimi’s decision to arrest Muslih. Just days before the arrest, protest leaders, who had formed new political parties to compete in the October polls, told President Barham Salih they would boycott the elections unless the state establishes law and order.
While a boycott would send a strong message to Iraq’s government, which is in desperate need of a robust voter turnout that could restore a degree of legitimacy to the political system, it would also be counterproductive to the demonstrators’ objectives. A low voter turnout would only prolong the status-quo distribution system, which allows an older generation of Shia political elites to remain in power – something the demonstrators are fighting against.
An April poll by Al-Mustakella Research Group/Gallup International Iraq found overall trust in the government to be at an all-time low: Only 22% of Iraqis said they trust the government; only 17% of Shias said they did. And in the same poll, 75% of Iraqis, and 80% of Shias, said the country is headed in the wrong direction.
There is widespread support within Iraqi society for the protest movement because Iraqis share the demonstrators’ concerns and demands. The slogans and placards during the protests have been overwhelmingly nationalistic, including with the battle cry that has become the unofficial slogan of the protests: “We want a homeland.”
Iraqi security sources say more arrests will be made in the near future. At the same time, it is likely the assassinations of protesters will continue in an effort to halt the momentum of the October 2019 uprising. However, the competition for the Iraqi state could be in a new place now: Unlike the June 2020 incident, which undermined Kadhimi’s authority and that of his government, the political calculus may have changed. If the case against Muslih goes through the judicial process as promised, this could be a gamechanger not only for the state’s relationship with the PMF but with a younger generation of Iraqis fighting for reform.
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Geneive Abdo is a visiting fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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