Iraqi authorities arrested leader of Iran-backed military wing on terrorism charges
A statement from Iraq’s Security Media Cell confirmed the arrest, relaying the warrant for Musleh’s arrest came in connection to an investigation under the Anti-Terrorism Law. It did not specify any of the charges Musleh currently faces.
Reuters, however, citing anonymous sources with “direct knowledge of the arrest,” claimed Musleh’s arrest was the result of his alleged involvement in the attacks on Ain al-Asad airbase, at which American and international forces maintain a presence. The airbase came under rocket assault in March of this year, and on several other occasions in the past year. The March strike saw at least ten PMF rockets target the facility.
The PMF, also known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), is a collection of Iran-backed militias within Iraq that became an official part of the Iraqi military in 2016. The PMF rose to prominence fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) invasion of Iraq and participated in the recapture of Mosul. The U.S. has had tense relations with the PMF. In 2017, U.S. military leaders praised the group for its role in defeating ISIS. Prior to that incident, and since, PMF leaders threatened action toward the lingering U.S. forces in Iraq. Several members of the PMF are U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations.
PMF groups maintain close ties to Iran, most prominently via the Quds Force, a branch of the U.S.-designated terrorist organization the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Head of the PMF group Hezbollah Brigades Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis died alongside Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani in the January 3, 2020, airstrike that neutralized the terrorist leader.
Then-President Donald Trump ordered the airstrike in the wake of a PMF effort to storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in which members of the group spray-painted “Soleimani is our commander” on the building.
One day prior to Musleh’s arrest, a Baghdad protest calling for the government to identify the murderers of several prominent activists turned deadly, claiming the lives of two demonstrators. Musleh himself stands accused of orchestrating the deaths of Fahim al-Taie and Ihab al-Wazni, two of the more than 30 activists assassinated in the country since October 2019, Rudaw noted. There have been at least 70 such attempts on activists in that period, aggravated by a protest movement against corruption in Baghdad.
The outsized influence the PMF has on the government has led to many instances of the group abusing its power and openly flouting Baghdad’s authority. In January 2021, the group held a mass demonstration in Baghdad to mark the one-year anniversary of Soleimani’s death, in complete defiance of national Chinese coronavirus restrictions.
The organization, which has until now enjoyed what amounts to legal immunity, has not taken the sudden effort to hold it accountable for the actions lying down. Threats from the Iran-backed faction forced the closure of Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses most of the government. Rudaw noted the emergence of pictures on social media showing PMF militia units entering the area and even surrounding the prime minister’s office.
A statement from the group described the charges as “malicious” and vowed Musleh would be “released in the coming hours.”