Iraq releases Iran-aligned commander arrested on terror charges

Qasim Muslih, who commands the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) is seen after being released in Kerbala, Iraq June 9, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -Iraq has released an Iran-aligned militia commander arrested in May on terrorism-related charges after authorities found insufficient evidence against him, in the latest blow to government attempts to rein in armed groups.

Security forces arrested Qasim Muslih, who operates mostly in Iraq's western Anbar province and is from the southern holy city of Kerbala, on May 26. His arrest and subsequent release show how the Iraqi government is struggling to deal with militias ideologically aligned with Iran which are accused of rocket fire against U.S. forces and of involvement in killing peaceful pro-democracy activists.

Hours after Muslih's release, two separate rocket attacks hit near U.S. forces and contractors at the Baghdad International Airport compound and an air base north of the Iraqi capital. There was no claim for the attacks.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has placed himself publicly in opposition to Iran-backed militias and parties but has fallen short on pledges to curb anti-U.S. attacks and hold killers of protesters to account.

Muslih's arrest was seen as the latest major attempt to rein in their power. His release without prosecution is a blow to those efforts and one of a number of unsuccessful attempts to crack down on armed groups.

The military had said the charges against him were terrorism-related but did not give details.

Security officials told Reuters at the time of the arrest that it was linked to attacks on U.S. forces stationed in Iraq. Some media and analysts said it was because of Muslih's alleged involvement in killing activists.

Kadhimi's two most high-profile moves against Iran-backed factions - the arrest of Muslih in May and the detention in June 2020 of fighters allegedly involved in rocket fire against U.S. targets - have each resulted in no prosecutions and all those arrested being released.

On both occasions, heavily armed militiamen have stormed Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, where foreign embassies and government buildings are located, threatening the prime minister.

Muslih commands the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Anbar province and leads his own faction within the organization.

The PMF is Iraq's state paramilitary grouping that includes mostly Shi'ite Muslim factions and is dominated by Iran-backed groups. Muslih is seen by Western and some Iraqi officials as being aligned with Iran.

(Reporting by John Davison and Baghdad newsroom; Editing by Catherine Evans/Nick Macfie and Grant McCool)

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