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A Test of Strength: The Relationship between the Iraqi state and the Popular Mobilization Forces Following Qasim Muslih’s Release

On 9 June Iraq’s judicial authorities released Qasim Muslih, Commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Anbar province after 15 days of detention for charges falling under Article (4) of the Anti-terrorism Law. The detention of Muslih provoked great controversy in Iraq and brought back to the fore discussions about Al-Kadhimi’s government position on armed factions and whether this crisis could reconfigure the relationship between the PMF and the state and the implications of the political forces and PMF factions’ stances on Muslih’s arrest on the the course of elections.

The Crisis from Arrest to Release

On 26 May the Iraqi authorities announced the arrest of Muslih against the backdrop of accusations of criminal offenses (as reported by Iraq’s Security Media Cell) and complaints submitted against him under Article (4) of the Anti-terrorism Law, according to the Prime Minister. Official data indicated that a special force of the army made the arrest under a direct order from Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and that Muslih was detained in the custody of the Joint Operations Command and interrogated by a joint investigation committee under legal proceeding.

Muslih is a high-profile leader of the PMF. He has been leading the PMF operations in Anbar since 2017, a highly critical position given the geographical significance of Anbar being a seam zone between Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabic, the Islamic State’s (IS) major stronghold in Iraq, and a frequent battle zone between the United States and Iran as a major Tehran-Mediterranean corridor. Muslih is also one of the PMF leaders enjoying close ties with Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis Deputy Chief of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC).

For long, Washington had accused the PMF’s pro-Iran factions, particularly those scattered along the Syrian-Iraqi borders, of targeting its sites by repeatedly attacking bases housing the US troops, including primarily the attack on Ayn Al-Asad base. Notably, Qasim Muslih was one of the PMF leaders accused of involving in such attacks.

Following confirmation of Muslih’s arrest, some of the PMF brigades moved in a show of force and encircled the Green Zone to intimidate the government into releasing Muslih or handing him over to the PMC’s security division. Such actions were met by a widespread rejection from many political forces and institutions considering them a break of law and an attempt to weaken the state in the face of armed factions. For its part, the PMF put out a statement denying any official commentary on the arrest, whereas PMC pro-factions considered the detention an attempt to derail the elections, a derogation from the procedures followed in questioning its members, and an endeavor to drag the armed forces into clash.

Muslih’s release decision was based on legal grounds including lack of evidence, largely reflecting that the judicial investigation took its normal legal course without any compromise or interventions. Just as he was arrested under a judicial arrest warrant dated 21 May 2021, he was released by virtue of a judicial order.  Issuing a statement on the case, Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council revealed that Muslih was primarly accused of assassinating the opposition activist Ihab Al-Wazni in Karbala on 9 May 2021 and that he was released for lack of sufficient evidence against him.

Influential Variables

Muslih’s arrest crisis contributed to introducing several variables to Iraq’s traditional political landscape, including the PMF’s failed show of power given its inability to place pressure on the government, the military involvement in the crisis and its return as a basic element in the security equation in Iraq, and the divergent positions within the PMC which extended beyond to other political forces. Below, we review in detail each of these variable.

I. PMF’s Failed Show of Power. Several PMF factions sought using their power to place pressure on Al-Kadhimi’s government pushing it release Qasim Muslih, a practice frequently used by the PMF to show power in the face of the state or opposing forces. As such, some PMF elements controlled entrances to the Green Zone and closed them for about half an hour. However, the most notable variable was the government’s response to the PMF pressure. It didn’t give in to the PMF’s demands neither by releasing Muslih nor handing him over to the PMF’s internal security department. While there has been news of the release of Muslih and purported celebrations by the PMF, what ended up happening was withdrawal of the PMF factions from the Green Zone while the joint committee investigations with Muslih continued. This marked a significant retreat of the PMF whose actions proved ineffective. 

II. Military Involvement in the Crisis. Muslih’s detention marked the return of the Iraqi army to play a role in the political landscape. The arrest was made by a force subordinate to the Ministry of Defense (MoD), which raised the PMF concerns fearing that it would be the beginning for curtailing its role for the military. Statements of the Iraqi Defense Minister Juma Saadoun, made it clear that that it is the military forces that is in the front line of the military scene in Iraq and that the PMF is just an auxiliary force whose presence contributed to accelerating the liberation of the Iraqi cities, while the army remained the decisive factor in confronting terrorism. Saadoun did not fail to show his rejection of the PMF display of power, stating that it does not intimidate the state and that the government is able to resist these moves, an allusion to the military.

III. Divergent Positions of PMF’s Factions. Stances of the PMF factions on Muslih’s arrest showed a clear conflict of views, either with regard to the arrest, its circumstances, the force that carried it out, or the protests by some PMF brigades in the Green Zone. For instance Qais Al-Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH), considered the arrest an attempt to reshuffle the political deck and disrupt the constitution, while Muqtada Al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist Movement, warned against browbeating the state or trying to weaken Iraq. On the other hand, statements of the al-Abbas Shrine Foundation in Najaf showed an implicit support for Al-Kadhimi’s decision. The office of Shiite cleric Ali Al-Sistani re-posted parts of the statement of establishing the PMF, calling for refraining from utilizing it to achieve political gains, endangering the PMF’s standing.

IV. Growing Political Competitiveness. The political forces’ handling of the arrest of Muslih brought to the surface the growing competition between these forces. On one hand, Haider Al-Abadi, former Prime Minister and leader of the Al-Nasr Coalition condemned the PMF demonstrations and their show of power against the state.  Likewise, Saairun Movement rejected the PMF moves in the Green Zone and considered what happened a criminal issue rather than a political one, underscoring the political forces should settle it up for a return to normalcy. On the other hand, Hadi Al-Amiri, the Secretary-General of the Badr Organization and leader of the al-Fateh Alliance criticized the arrest stressing the need to distance Iraq from the US-Iranian polarization and maintain balanced relations with Saudi Arabia. Conversely, Hassan Faddam, representative of Al-Hikma Movement in the Parliament, stated that the arrest of Qasim Muslih was intended to create an atmosphere that help cover up the killing of demonstrators.

In conclusion, Muslih’s arrest and later release revealed the nature of the relationship between the government and the PMF as well as the divergent stances of the political forces that took the chance to send messages establishing their future approach in dealing with other actors in Iraq’s political scene. Key notes from the crisis can be summarized as follows:

  • Al-Kadhimi’s government made clear that Muslih’s arrest wasn’t aimed at targeting the PMF and that it was conducted in accordance with the legislative regulations already in place. The arrest was made by virtue of a judicial warrant, the release was made upon a judicial ruling, and Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council was the only entity involved in commenting on the issue. 
  • The government’s dismissive attitude of armed demonstrations that would damage the prestige of the state became so apparent. The government’s relevant statements were more confrontational, vehemently condemning the PMF moves in the Green Zone and considering them a departure from law and a break of instructions of the General Command of the Armed Forces. Relatedly, statements of Defense Minister Juma Anad Saadoun evinced the state’s ability to counter these moves.
  • The government’s position in general and the Ministry of Defense’s stance in particular reflected a tendency to neutralize the narrative of the PMF’s control over the Iraqi decision, reinforcing the idea that only the security forces has the ability to maintain security and highlighting the military’s return to the scene, being  Iraq’s longest military arm. 
  • As varied and divergent as they are, statements of different political blocs and the Shiite factions reveal a tendency to take a position without explicitly expressing rejection of the PMF as an entity nor showing support for the Al-Kadhimi’s government. This reflects the political forces’ realization of the PMC role which gives it considerable political weight, given the dominance of a hybrid political-military force on the political landscape.
  • The controversy over the arrest of Muslih showed Iran’s calm, having leverage against all political actors in Iraq.  For its part, Tehran did not declare its position on Muslih’s arrest, unlike the United States which welcomed the decision. This indicates that Iran’s penetration in Iraq is still a decisive element in the stability equation in the country.

Overall, Muslih’s arrest was more of a test of the strength and solidity of positions of the government and the PMF factions, a test that showed the government’s influence, its acceptance by the Shiite forces, and the extent to which Iran can place pressure and reorient Iraq’s political track. The PMF is unlikely to turn to escalation but apparently there seems to be some kind of understanding on appeasing the PMF and controlling moves of the PMF factions. The PMF is aware that this would reshuffle the transitional political deck and lessen chances of holding elections on time, a situation that could bring back the October 2019 momentum to streets. Amid these interactions in Iraq’s domestic front, Iran’s message was calm. Tehran has effective tools to place pressure on all active Iraqi actors; however, it wants stability for the political scene in Iraq, at least amid the ongoing Vienna talks over its nuclear program.       

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