The most frequent buzzwords in Iraq these days are “sovereignty”, “prestige” and “respect” for the state. Yet, these are also the most ridiculed concepts. Since he was appointed prime minister last May Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has made reviving the state the cornerstone of his government’s agenda.
For Al-Kadhimi, winning back respect for Iraq’s state apparatus meant reining in dozens of Shia militias which have been acting as a state within the state and threatening the government’s efforts to end Iraq’s multiple crises.
Last week Al-Kadhimi’s attempts to restore Iraq’s prestige against Iran-backed armed groups received another heavy blow and raised many questions on whether the incumbent prime minister can keep his words and stand up to the rogue militias.
Hours after reports emerged that Iraqi security forces had arrested a powerful militia commander on 26 May in connection with a series of killings of protesters, throngs of fellow militiamen took to the streets in Baghdad in protest.
Brigades of the Popular Moblisation Force (PMF), an umbrella organisation for Shia militias better known as Al-Hashd, drove machine gun-mounted vehicles around the heavily fortified Green Zone, which hosts foreign embassies and government buildings, as a show of force, and reportedly even encircled Al-Kadhimi’s residence.
Al-Kadhimi had earlier ordered the security forces to arrest Kassim Muslih, the PMF operations chief for the Anbar province, after an arrest warrant was issued based on complaints filed against him under the anti-terrorism act.
The latest standoff caused rising tensions in Iraq to boil over into a mutiny against Al-Kadhimi, who is officially the commander in chief of the Iraqi armed forces including the PMF.
Many Shia political leaders viewed the paramilitary show with concern and blasted the militias for “bullying” and “sedition.” Powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who heads the largest bloc in parliament, warned that the standoff would weaken Iraq.
An angry response to the PMF’s defiant show of strength also came from the United Nations, the United States and several European embassies in Baghdad which have been keeping a close watch on the militias.
Muslih was arrested in relation to a wave of murders of pro-democracy activists. The family of Iyad Al-Wazni, who was shot on 9 May in the holy shrine city of Karbala, publicly accused Muslih of orchestrating his brutal killing.
Al-Wazni who had been outspoken against Iraqi armed groups and Iran’s influence in the country was shot dead outside his home by bikers using a gun equipped with a silencer. The murder sent protest movement supporters onto the streets to demand an end to such bloodshed and official impunity.
Security sources told foreign news agencies that Muslih was also implicated in several other attacks including recent assaults on the Ain Al-Assad air base, where the US and other international forces are housed.
Muslih was a junior fighter in a group loyal to prominent Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani that was formed to fight Islamic State (IS) militants before he was lured into the pro-Iran militias and made a senior PMF commander.
The prime minister described the show of force as “a serious violation of the Iraqi Constitution and the laws in force,” adding in a statement that “we have ordered an immediate investigation into these movements.”
The latest show of force was preceded by months of tension between Al-Kadhimi and the pro-Iran militias and Tehran-backed political groups who are vying for seats in the crucial upcoming parliamentary election, scheduled for October.
In July 2020, scores of militiamen drove gun-mounted pickup trucks towards the Green Zone after Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service (CTS) raided a stronghold packed with rockets ready to be fired belonging to the powerful Iran-backed Kataib Hizbullah (KH) militia.
After the armed demonstration and threats to kill Al-Kadhimi whom the militiamen accused of treason, the government released a dozen members of the group who had been detained in the blitz assault.
This time Al-Kadhimi said the defendant would stay in custody until the end of the enquiry. Officials said other militiamen would be summoned for investigation in murders of pro-protest activists.
Still, many Iraqis believe Al-Kadhimi’s response to the PMF has been ineffective, weak and off the mark. Since he came to power a year ago Al-Kadhimi promised his government would claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of arms but numerous militias remain at large.
Iraqi security and judicial authorities have consistently failed to publicly identify or charge the perpetrators of killings that have not been claimed. Over 30 activists have been assassinated in Iraq since mass anti-corruption protests started in October 2019. The killings and abductions have forced thousands of activists to flee their homes or continue to live in fear.
Casting himself as the champion of a strong state, Al-Kadhimi must understand that his priority should be to reinvent the state in order to deal with loosely organised militias using the PMF and the fight against IS as a cover for violent anti-state activities.
It is widely believed that the rouge groups which are stretching their influence in the society well beyond their numbers are actively engaged in a long-term effort to take control of the state.
The militias’ campaign to kill and intimidate pro-reform activists who also resist Iran’s heavy-handed interventions in Iraqi affairs is seen as an attempt to suppress their participation in Iraq’s next parliamentary elections in October.
Investigators in Muslih’s case should, therefore, probe other cases of activists being murdered, looking into last week’s mutiny and making an overall review of PMF activities and whether the organisation entertains any desire for an armed overthrow of the government.
At the centre of the whirlwind sparked by the militias’ rebellion is the future of Iraq, which has long became a failed state. If the unruly militias maintain their defiance, the government will lose what little credibility it had left and Iraq will be teetering on the edge of collapse.
The Iraqi Defence Minister Juma Anad has warned of a civil war should confrontations with the militias continue. He said PMF officials should have met with Al-Kadhimi to resolve the dispute over Muslih’s arrest instead of flexing their muscles on the streets of the capital.
“They shouldn’t have made threats of using force or resorted to arm twisting,” Anad said in a statement. “The army has the potential to fight a state, not 40 vehicles carrying some armed men.”
By and large Iraq has reached a tipping point in state-PMF relations, which underscores the need to solve the problem in order to prevent a wider spread of disorder.
The last thing Iraqis want to see is a civil war between the army and the PMF, but preventing such a war depends on Al-Kadhimi being effective and strong enough to resolve matters with the militias rather than continually trying to manage them.
It is widely believed Al-Kadhimi should stop the resurgence of the militias and start rethinking the PMF; one possibility is to restructure the PMF to place it under the government’s control.
Every ordinary Iraqi knows the conventional wisdom: eat him at lunch before he eats you at dinner. The government should reform the PMF while it remains strong, or it will suffer the consequences.
Al-Kadhimi’s politics of appeasement has not been working for over a year and his crackdown on the killers of pro-reform protesters can finally give people some hope that he is ready to act.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly