Iraqi PM visits Baghdad streets as tensions rise with Iran-backed militias

yesterday at 11:36 Rudaw  – 2 Dec 2020 –  ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi made a rare visit into the streets of Baghdad as the capital came close to being plunged into lawlessness on Friday night with Iran-backed militias threatening the government over the arrest of their militiaman and the prime minister deploying his loyal security forces into the streets to preserve peace and maintain order. Tensions are rising between his government and Iranian-backed militia groups ahead of the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Kadhimi visited neighbourhoods on both the east and west side of the city, praying in a mosque, meeting with security forces, and posing for photographs with people in the street.

His tour was made after videos were shared on Telegram channels linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) purportedly showing members of Asaib Ahl al-Haq threatening Kadhimi and the United States and deploying their forces to the streets of the Iraqi capital. Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a member of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic), has reportedly demanded the release of one of their members arrested earlier this week in connection with a rocket attack on the US embassy complex in Baghdad.

An Asaib Ahl al-Haq military commander Jawad al-Talibawi said a member of their militia has been arrested on criminal charges and that the security services are interfering in the investigation, questioning the detainee in relation to the rocket attacks and trying to coerce him to confess to the recent attack on the American embassy. Talibawi demanded the investigation take place without political influence.

According to a purported order from the counter-terror intelligence directorate of the Ministry of the Interior, dated Saturday, following an agreement between Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Iraqi Counter-Terror Service, the person arrested will be released to the Hashd al-Shaabi security directorate to deal with the matter and Asaib Ahl al-Haq will withdraw the forces it had deployed.

The head of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, tweeted on Sunday after the rocket attack that they have the right to attack the Americans. The time for their revenge is not now, but is not far in the future.

Kadhimi issued a warning, without naming any group. “We have worked steadily to restore the confidence of the people, security services, and the army in the state, which has been shaken by the activities of outlaws,” he tweeted Friday evening. “We called for calm to prevent our country from being plunged into another absurd adventure, but we are ready for a decisive confrontation if necessary.”

Farhad Alaaldin, chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council, warned of a “real showdown” between state forces and the militias.

“There are armed groups who are stronger in certain ways than the government security forces and they wouldn’t shy away from a real showdown which is expected to happen sooner or later,” Alaaldin told Rudaw English. “It is challenging times for the state. The next few weeks will be very tense to say the least and will be a real test for the Commander in Chief and the security forces.”

US President Donald Trump has blamed Iran for the rocket attack. “Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over,” he tweeted. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, replied, slamming Trump for “recklessly” making accusations and saying the president in his last weeks of his time in office “will bear full responsibility for any adventurism on his way out.”

Iraqis are worried about a conflict between Iran and the United States playing out on Iraqi soil. Influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in a message tweeted on Friday and directed at both Tehran and Washington, said that Iraq is not a party to their conflict. Member of the Iraqi parliament Naeem al-Ahad called for an impartial investigation into the rocket attacks, and emphasized the importance of preserving the integrity of the Iraqi state and the rule of law.

Iranian-backed militia groups are demanding the United States withdraw from Iraq after the US assassinated Soleimani in a drone attack in Baghdad on January 3.

The deputy commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hejazi said Iran has delivered the US “two slaps” in retaliation for the assassination – the funerals of the two slain commanders that drew massive crowds, and a missile attack on the US military base in Ain al-Assad – and vowed that two more actions are still to come: a possible cyber-attack and the expulsion of US forces from the region.