US ‘outraged’ by violence of armed militias in Iraq

“Moreover, the violation of Iraqi sovereignty and rule of law by armed militias harms all Iraqis and their country,” Price continued
Popular Mobilization Forces surround the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Photo: Hadi Mizban / AP)
Popular Mobilization Forces surround the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Photo: Hadi Mizban / AP)

WASHINGTON, DC (Kurdistan 24) – “The United States is outraged that peaceful demonstrators who took to the streets to urge reform were met with threats and brutal violence,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement issued late on Thursday.

“Moreover, the violation of Iraqi sovereignty and rule of law by armed militias harms all Iraqis and their country,” Price continued.

Early on Wednesday morning, Iraqi forces arrested Qasim Muslih, the head of the Popular Militia Forces (PMF) in western Anbar province, where he commands a force of some 2,000 fighters and controls a stretch of the border between Iraq and Syria, which Iran uses to transfer men and material between the two countries.

On Monday, Ain al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province, one of two major sites in Iraq that host coalition troops (the other is Erbil International Airport), was attacked by a rocket round. It was the fourth time this month that the air base has been assaulted.

However, Muslih’s arrest was triggered by the killing of two Iraqi pro-democracy activists in the Shia holy city of Karbala, as The New York Times reported. 

Read More: Assassination of Iraqi activist sparks fresh protests in Karbala

“The largely grass roots and secular protests that first swept Baghdad and the overwhelmingly Shiite southern provinces two years ago have posed an existential threat to Iran-backed militia groups that have been a main target of the demonstrators’ rage and their calls to reduce Iranian interference in Iraq,” the Times observed.

This would seem to underscore a point implicit in Price’s statement: the same parties that are attacking coalition forces are also attacking peaceful Iraqi demonstrators. 

Muslih’s detention triggered an invasion later that day by those militias of the Green Zone, where many Iraqi government offices are located, as well as the residences of senior officials, along with foreign embassies.

Read More: Iranian-backed militias stage armed protest at Baghdad's Green Zone after commander's arrest

Some media outlets reported that Muslih was subsequently released. However, Michael Knights, a highly-regarded Iraq analyst with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy dismissed that claim as “fevered” militia “propaganda,” and he affirmed on Thursday that Muslih remained in the custody of Iraqi authorities.

Price’s statement underscored US support for the efforts of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to counter the violence of the militias—which it likened to “thugs and vigilante groups.”

“We welcome every effort by the government to hold accountable the militias, thugs, and vigilante groups for their attacks against Iraqis exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Price said, “as well as for their assault on the rule of law.”

Price’s statement followed a similar, though less formal, statement from the White House. National Security Council Advisor Jake Sullivan on Wednesday tweeted: “We strongly support PM Kadhimi & Govt of Iraq’s commitment to uphold rule of law & pave the way for free & fair elections,” and “we condemn those who seek to undermine Iraq’s stability with acts of violence.”

Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a report underscoring the dangers to Iraq’s political system that such violence is creating.

Read More: Failure to hold armed groups accountable for killings will mar Iraq elections, HRW warns

The targeted assassinations of Iraqi journalists and activists has created a “palpable climate of fear,” and unless the government in Baghdad takes “urgent steps” to stop them, the murders will have a chilling effect on Iraq’s upcoming elections and distorting their results, the organization warned.