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.
The release of XO Qassim Mahmoud Musleh came as Iranian Gen. Esmail Ghaani, head of the expeditionary Quds Force, arrived in Baghdad to meet with militia and political leaders, two Shiite political officials said.
The officials said the meeting was to address ongoing tensions between the government and some militia groups linked to Iran following Musleh's arrest. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
Supporters of 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.
Iraq's Supreme Judicial Council said Musleh was released because of insufficient evidence and that proper legal procedures had been followed — an apparent effort to dispel criticism over his release.
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. Their growing clout within Iraq has troubled Western, especially U.S., officials and presented an ongoing challenge for Iraq's government.
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.
Musleh's release was considered by many to be a win for the PMF in its standoff with the government.
In comments to local media in Karbala after his release, Musleh said: "The leadership of the PMF expect that they will be accused of terrorism. ... It has happened before and it is happening now. Enemies outside of Iraq are pointing fingers toward. the leadership of the PMF ... the PMF is the one defending this country."
The charges had accused Musleh of corruption and complicity in the assassinations of Iraqi activists in Karbala, in particular the targeted killing of Ehab al-Wazni. Al-Wazni was an outspoken activist in Karbala whose death sparked outrage and protests across Iraq's south and Baghdad.