Young people in Iraq, whose protests in 2019 brought a democratic reformer to power, are holding their breath. On May 26, for the first time the Iraqi government arrested a senior commander of a pro-Iran militia and – here is the breath-holding part – he has not been released more than a week later. In addition, an attempt by the commander’s militia to besiege the capital and pressure his release was repelled by elite Iraqi forces.
While the arrest of Qasim Muslih on terrorism charges is small on a global scale, it represents a significant advancement in rule of law and accountability in a country pivotal to the growth of democracy in the Middle East. No senior member of the many Iran-backed militias that reject government control has been held accountable for the killing of pro-democracy activists over the past two years. And previous attempts at arresting the militia members of Mr. Muslih’s Kataib Hezbollah group ended up with them being quickly released.
His arrest is even more significant as it comes just four months before parliamentary elections, giving hope that voters and candidates can enjoy peaceful campaigning and that the integrity of the electoral process will be upheld.
“Either the state proceeds to sovereignty and order, or the state falls on everyone’s heads,” tweeted a former prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, after the arrest. He added that “no one is above the law.”
In addition, a successful election in Iraq would stand in contrast to a June 18 presidential election in neighboring Iran, where candidates are carefully chosen by ruling Islamist clerics whose attempts to control Iraq include the backing of several militias.
Since taking office just over a year ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has slowly gained enough political strength to bring some rule of the law to a state that relies heavily on a division of government spoils among Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups. With the help of the United Nations, he has improved the mechanics for a neutral election, one in which he claims he will not run. He has beefed up border security with Syria, partly cutting off illegal trade that helps fund some militias. He has appointed many officers in the armed forces, replacing those who have supported militias close to Iran. And he has ordered state institutions to stop classifying Iraqis by their religious affiliation.
Iraq’s attempt to establish a stable, secular democracy in the heart of the Arab world has been a long process of adopting the key building blocks of democracy. Since the May arrest of a key militia leader, rule of law may be one block more firmly in place.