On May 26, Iraqi security forces arrested General Qasim Muslih, commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Anbar province, basing their action on the country’s anti-terrorism law. He was accused of involvement in attacks against military targets, including the Ayn al-Asad air base that also houses American troops stationed in Iraq. But according to sources, his arrest is directly related to his alleged involvement in the assassination of civil society activists Fahim al-Taie in December of 2019 and Ihab al-Wazni on May 9. Muslih’s arrest did not sit well with the pro-Iran PMF, whose forces staged what came close to a mutiny in Baghdad’s Green Zone (where government institutions and foreign embassies are located). The PMF’s show of force was considered a direct challenge to the authority of sitting Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi who, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, would be involved in issuing the arrest warrant for Muslih.
Interestingly, Shia and PMF leaders such as Hadi al-Amiri, commander of the Badr militia, and Qais al-Khazali, who heads Asaib Ahl al-Haq—both virulent and sectarian pro-Iran militias—expressed their support of Muslih and highlighted his record in fighting American forces in the country. This, they reason, may give him popular legitimacy and discount his involvement in killing activist Iraqis. They also accused Kadhimi’s government of unconstitutionally detaining him, although the PMF is practically under the prime minister’s command—a fact that gives the latter’s actions the constitutionality they need. Further, had the government’s evidence against Muslih not been ironclad, the presiding judge would not have issued his arrest warrant.
Most important, perhaps, was the military show of force the PMF staged in the Green Zone. This represented not only a direct challenge to law and order and to the authority of the prime minister, but also a veiled threat that the militias can mobilize anytime to get their way in a country supposedly governed by constitutional principles. Additionally, if Muslih’s role in killing activists—many of whom are Shia and hail from Shia provinces such as Basra, Dhi Qar, Nasiriya, Najaf, and Karbala—goes unpunished, then it would be open season on all activists who dare to protest against rampant corruption and allegiance to Iran. In that sense, Muslih’s arrest has become a pivotal point in the fight for democracy in Iraq and independence in the country’s foreign policy. Since October 2019, when popular demonstrations started against the status quo in Iraq, more than 800 activists have lost their lives in militia attacks.
What has been helpful to the rule of law in Iraq was the support the government’s action received from the United Nations representative in the country, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert. She approved of the arrest, saying, “Any arrest case should run its course, as goes for any Iraqi,” and adding that “Nobody should resort to a show of force to get their way… Nobody is above the law.”
To be sure, Iraq needs the support of the international community in its drive to establish the rule of law against unhinged militia forces that are loyal to Iran. International pressure is also needed to curb the abuses of security forces. To wit, on May 25, two demonstrators were killed and scores of others were wounded when the police attacked an anti-government protest that has become one in a series of actions demanding change in the country.