Senior Iraqi militia leaders arrested on corruption charges

Commander of Iran-backed Al Khorasani Brigades and his former deputy detained by Popular Mobilisation Forces

Members of the paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) take part in their graduation ceremony at a military camp in Kerbala, Iraq August 30, 2019. REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-Deen
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The arrest of senior leaders from an Iran-backed militia is part of a plan to restructure Iraq's state-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella group of paramilitaries that is made up mainly of Iraqi Shiite militias, according to an official close to the PMF.

Security forces affiliated to the PMF arrested Hamid Al Jazairi, the former deputy commander of Al Khorasani Brigades and more than a dozen of his followers on Sunday.

The next day, the group’s commander, Ali Al Yassiri, was arrested.

Since taking office in May, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi has tried to rein in militias backed by Tehran, but failed. In one incident, the country's counter-terrorism forces arrested 14 militiamen for planning a rocket attack on Baghdad's Green Zone, but they were released days later and the case against them dropped.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the PMF said it had closed down six military and administrative offices in Baghdad and arrested several people for "violating laws and regulations".

It did not name those arrested or give more details.

"It is an attempt to rearrange the house from inside," the official close to the PMF told The National.

“It is also designed to scare others who exploit the Hashed name for their own benefit,” he said, using the Arabic name for the PMF.

The arrested leaders are accused of corruption and are now under investigation, he said.

When Iraqi security forces crumbled in mid-2014 as ISIS swept through northern and western Iraq, Shiite volunteers and militias answered a call from the country’s influential Shiite cleric, grand ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, to join the fight.

Al Khorasani Brigades, which was established in 2013 to fight in Syria in support of the Assad regime, was among the Iran-backed Shiite militias to join the PMF.

When major military operations ended and ISIS was declared defeated in late 2017, many Shiite militias scrambled to win lucrative government reconstruction deals in the liberated areas, many of which were in ruins.

These groups are accused of embezzling businessmen and investors in different areas in Iraq. The influential Iran-backed militias make money through front companies to win government deals or secure deals or projects for businessmen against a share.

Al Khorasani Brigades is notorious for its role in quelling the pro-reform protests that broke out in central and southern Iraq last October.

At least 560 protesters and members of security forces were killed in the protests, while tens of thousands were wounded – many suffering life-changing injuries, according to statistics released by the government on July 30.

Most of these were protesters, hit by security forces and state-sanctioned militias firing live rounds and military-grade smoke bombs.

Mr Al Kadhimi pledged to investigate the killings, but has failed to hold anyone accountable.

The developments this week could be followed by a decision to dismantle the group for their alleged role in the protests and widespread corruption charges, the official said.

“The move is to fix the reputation of the Hashed locally and internationally as many groups have become a burden,” he said.