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The Iraqi state has once again proved its impotence in the face of Tehran-backed paramilitaries. The Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi militia confederation went on the rampage last week after a powerful militia leader, Qassim Muslih, was detained on charges of plotting assassinations and murdering protesters.

Militant leaders denounced the arrest as a “kidnapping” — as if Iraq’s security forces and police had no legal jurisdiction over the Hashd! Thousands of militia fighters flooded into the Green Zone, the heavily fortified heart of Baghdad’s governing system, wielding RPGs and other offensive weaponry. Regular security forces melted away, leaving militants free to menace ministries and embassies.

With Kalashnikov-wielding militias encircling his offices and family home, Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi was summoned like a naughty schoolboy to meet three of the Hashd’s most powerful leaders — Hadi Al-Amiri, Abu-Fadak Al-Mohammedawi and Falih Al-Fayyad — to explain why their colleague had been detained.

We may never know what threats were made to the prime minister, but within hours Muslih was duly handed over to the Hashd’s Security Directorate. The only significant concession was that no photos of Muslih would be published, so that the prime minister’s abject humiliation would not be carried to its excruciating extremes.

This is not the first such farce: Soon after Kadhimi began his job a year ago, amid sincere promises to get tough with the militants, a number of Hashd figures were arrested for firing missiles. But after another massive paramilitary show of force around the Green Zone, Kadhimi caved in and released these criminals into Hashd custody.

It’s as if the prime minister were trying to offer incontrovertible demonstrations of the Hashd’s impunity! This also sets a dangerous precedent for national unity: Hundreds of Sunnis were executed after 10-minute trials based on hearsay evidence of Daesh sympathies, but the Hashd is proving an even greater existential threat to Iraq’s existence than Daesh and its personnel are now apparently untouchable. Sources I spoke to worry about whether Muslih will later come out and flaunt his immunity; or whether he will be smuggled to Iran, like so many other death squad commanders with gallons of Iraqi blood on their hands.

Likewise, over the past couple of years prime ministerial executive orders demanded that these militia factions cease their independent existence, merge into the regular armed forces, and close the hundreds of “economic offices” set up across the country through which militants extort citizens and businesses. Of course, these directives were ignored; instead,highway and border checkpoints have multiplied, earning these forces more than $6 billion a year. The constitution explicitly forbids paramilitary personnel from participating in parliamentary elections, yet somehow they’ve become the most powerful component of the parliament.

With elections in just months, this is a body blow to the authority and sovereignty of the Iraqi state from which it will struggle to recover. Militias are inexorably growing stronger than the state, while also monopolizing key state posts from the inside, leaving Iraq’s administration like a rotten, hollowed-out tree. Ahead of these elections we can see militias rivaling one another through a variety of strategies; in some cases superficially distancing themselves from Iran and ludicrously portraying themselves as Iraqi nationalists, while elsewhere seeking to enforce their control so vigorously that citizens have only one viable choice to vote for.

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