Iraq attempts to de-escalate tensions after arrest of militia leader

Qassim Musleh's detention led to stand-off between government security forces and supporters of armed group

Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) control one of the entrances to the Green Zone in Baghdad,Iraq May 26, 2021. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
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Iraq's government is not built on revenge and is about serving the public, Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi said on Thursday as tensions flared after the arrest of a militia leader.

Qassem Musleh's arrest led to a stand-off between the militia's supporters and government security forces in the Iraqi capital late on Wednesday.

“We have worked with strength and sincerity to dismantle the accumulated crises that we inherited from previous governments. They are in the economic, political, security and social sectors,” Mr Al Kadhimi said after the arrest.

“There are crises that need more time to dismantle."

He said his government aims to “serve the public and is not built on revenge".

The situation escalated after factions of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) gathered around the main entrance to the Green Zone after Mr Musleh's arrest.

Iraqi security forces and the elite Counter-Terrorism Service were deployed to protect the diplomatic missions and government buildings in the area.

The prime minister described the PMF's show of force as “a serious violation of the Iraqi constitution and the laws in force".

He said: “We have directed an immediate investigation into these movements.”

The arrest of Mr Musleh, the leader of PMF operations in Anbar province, was based on a judicial investigation and warrant on terrorism charges, Iraq's military said. He is being questioned by a joint investigative committee.

Four security officials confirmed that the charges, recommended by the Anti-Corruption Committee led by Lt Gen Ahmed Abu Ragheef, were related to the murder of activists in the southern city of Karbala, AP reported.

Reuters reported that Mr Musleh's arrest was in connection with a recent rocket attack against the Iraqi-US base at Al Asad. His troops are stationed not far from the base.

The PMF is a state-sanctioned group, made up of militias, that was formed to help Iraq’s army defeat ISIS in 2014. Among the most powerful members of the group are Iran-backed Shiite militias.

International condemnation for show of arms in Baghdad

After the escalations, the UN special representative in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said that any arrest should run its course.

"And surely, nobody should resort to a show of force to get their way,” Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said. “Such behaviour weakens the Iraqi state and further erodes public trust. State institutions must be respected at all times. Nobody is above the law."

The British embassy in Baghdad said it supported the government’s investigation into the actions of armed groups and that Iraqis have called for a state where those who break the law are held to account.

"No one should use force and threats to impede criminal investigations. Democracy rests on respect for the rule of law," the embassy said.

Senior militia commander Qassem Musleh. Reuters

With armed groups who consider themselves above the law, it is not possible to respect the basic rights of citizens and hold accountable those responsible for assassinating members of civil society, said Ulric Shannon, the Canadian ambassador to Iraq.

“The parade of weapons today against public institutions is a clear threat to the state. The Iraqi judiciary should be allowed to operate without the threat of violence, and the law should be applied to everyone,” Mr Shannon said on Twitter.