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Iraqi militia commander, whose arrest stoked tensions, freed

BAGHDAD (AP) — An Iraqi militia commander whose arrest last month sparked a standoff between the government and paramilitary groups was freed Wednesday after a judge ordered his release.

Supporters of Qassim Mahmoud Musleh greeted him with hugs and kisses on Baghdad’s central Jadriya Bridge after his release, taking photos and videos with him to celebrate. Two Iraqi officials said Musleh was released at 8 a.m. and he returned to the southern city of Karbala, his hometown, where supporters also greeted him.

Musleh is head of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Anbar province. He was arrested May 27 on terrorism charges following a judicial investigation. His release was ordered by an investigative judge within the PMF, to whom his case file had been sent, two Iraqi officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The PMF is a state-sanctioned group comprised of an array of militias formed to battle the Islamic State group in 2014. Among the most powerful members of the group are Iran-backed Shiite militia groups.

Musleh’s arrest sparked tensions and fears of violence when, shortly after, forces affiliated with the PMF surrounded Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s headquarters inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi government.

Iraqi security forces and the elite Counter-Terrorism Service were deployed to protect the government and diplomatic missions. PMF factions had also gathered around the Green Zone’s entrance gates.

It was the latest incident highlighting al-Kadhimi’s ongoing challenge to impose the rule of law on militia groups. The groups are suspected of targeting anti-government protesters and outspoken activists as well as the American presence in Iraq. The charges had accused Musleh of corruption and complicity in the assassinations of Iraqi activists in Karbala.

The events following Musleh’s arrest brought criticism of the government’s lack of ability to impose state order and bring suspects to account. Of particular concern has been Musleh’s physical custody throughout his detention, with some considering any transfer to PMF security as a concession by al-Kadhimi.

The PMF also faced condemnation from Iraqi and Western officials for stoking tensions.

Following Musleh’s detention, Al-Kadhimi held a meeting with key Shiite leaders to quell hostilities. Based on the meeting’s outcome, Musleh was taken into PMF custody.

An investigative committee comprised of officials from the defense and interior ministries, National Security and the PMF was formed to look into his case. Musleh was in the custody of the Joint Operations Command during that time. The JOC oversees an array of Iraqi security forces.

On Monday, his file was sent to a PMF investigative judge, who ordered his release.

Attempts to arrest militia-affiliated individuals in the past have unfolded in a similar pattern, with pressure coming from militia groups and concessions on the part of the government.

A raid carried out by the Counter-Terrorism Service last summer against Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah led to over a dozen arrests. All were eventually released after pressure and threats of violence against the government.

Qassim Abdul-zahra And Samya Kullab, The Associated Press