Baghdad and Anbar, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has declared the Karrada region of Baghdad an arms-free zone, following reports of violent unrest caused by volunteer militias in the area.
In a press statement, Gen. Saad Muin, the official spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, said Abadi, who hails from Karrada, had “ordered the Baghdad Operations Command to ensure the Karrada region is completely emptied of all weapons.”
This comes following reports of clashes between different volunteer militias and the kidnapping of the secretary general of an Iraqi Hezbollah branch, Abbas Al-Muhammadawi, in the area on Saturday afternoon.
Muin said six armed men abducted Muhammadawi from his residence in Karrada on Saturday and then took him to “an unknown location.” They were later arrested and are currently being held for questioning—though Muhammadawi’s whereabouts remain unknown.
Despite the kidnapping, Muin rejected claims there had been clashes in the area between different militia groups, saying that the kidnappers had simply fired shots in the air during the abduction to “scare away passersby,” which had then been mistaken by some as a conflict between different groups.
However, Mithal Al-Alousi, an MP for the Civil Democratic Alliance in the Iraqi parliament, told Asharq Al-Awsat there were numerous armed groups active within the capital operating with impunity.
“The prime minister’s decision shows that the control and movement of weapons in Baghdad is happening outside the purview of the state. The weapons are in the hands of those who are against the concept of statehood in the first place, whether a civil state or not,” he said.
He added that there were factions and groups within the country “deliberately seeking to sabotage Abadi’s work” and that this was now manifesting itself in “acts which blatantly attempt to impede government operations.”
The Baghdad provincial council meanwhile welcomed Abadi’s decision to empty Karrada of arms, and called for this measure to be extended to the rest of the city.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Saad Al-Mutalibi, a member of the council, said this was especially important in Karrada since the area was a potential flashpoint for sectarian violence as it was home to several different confessional and ethnic groups, as well as being an area with a heavy militia presence.
Issam Al-Obaidi, a senior member of the Mutahidoun bloc in the Iraqi parliament, told Asharq Al-Awsat he welcomed Abadi’s decision but that it had come too late.
“It took too long to take this decision,” he said. “The armed groups and militias have already spread throughout Karrada and other regions and have a noticeable presence there. They carry weapons under the full gaze of the security services, facing no reprimand at all.”
Iraq has been plagued by violence carried out by different armed groups since the US-led invasion which toppled the dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. Though many militia units ostensibly formed to fight the forces of the US-led coalition present in Iraq, many also carried out thousands of sectarian killings, “cleansing” whole neighborhoods of Baghdad and other cities of members of rival sects.
Some militia units, composed of Sunni tribesmen, were also formed under US sponsorship in order to combat Al-Qaeda, though this proved to be unpopular with the Shi’ite-led government of Iraq’s former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki.
The spectacular advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) across northern and western Iraq last year has prompted a resurgence among Shi’ite militias, with some reforming or expanding in an effort to bolster the Iraqi armed forces, which have often proved to be ineffectual in combating ISIS.
However, some of the militias have also been accused of carrying out a new wave of indiscriminate sectarian killings in communities suspected of harboring ISIS sympathizers. Members of some militia groups have also traveled to Syria, to fight alongside government forces, stoking fresh sectarian tensions in Iraq.