KARBALA, IRAQ (AFP) – Iraqi authorities freed a pro-Iran commander on Wednesday two weeks after he was arrested over the murder of a pro-democracy activist, as a booby-trapped drone struck Baghdad’s airport – a signature method used by pro-Iranian forces in the Middle East.
The drone struck the capital’s airport, where United States (US) troops are based, an hour after five rockets were fired at an airbase to the north where US sub-contractors operate, security officials said.
It is the fourth time in less than two months that such devices have been used in Iraq to target US interests, a form of attack also used by pro-Iran Huthi rebels in Yemen.
Experts said the increasing use of such drones is a sign of an escalation in Iraq, where the US has deployed anti-aircraft defence to repel rockets – but did not manage to intercept Wednesday’s drone, which crashed into the airport.
Earlier in the day pro-Iran groups hailed what they described as “one more victory” for the state-affiliated Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition, as its commander Qassem Muslah was released.
Muslah had been arrested on May 26 by police intelligence on suspicion of ordering the killing of Ihab al-Wazni, a pro-democracy activists who was shot dead on May 9 by men on motorbikes using a silencer.
The paramilitary leader was welcomed by pro-Iran Hashed al-Shaabi colleagues in Iraq’s Shiite city of Karbala following his release, AFP journalists said.
“The judges have served justice, they have ended their investigation, terminating it with my release,” Muslah said.
Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council said in a statement that it had found “no proof of his involvement” in the murder, and that it had established “that he was not in Iraq at the time of Wazni’s assassination”.
But a senior official condemned the decision to release Muslah. “The government presented all available evidence, but the judges have decided to release him because of pressure exerted on them,” said the official, who wished to remain anonymous.
In the wake of Muslah’s arrest, security forces had barred entry to Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone – home to the US embassy, Parliament and the Premier’s office – after the Hashed quickly deployed armed men and armoured vehicles in a show of force.
Muslah is also suspected of ordering the assassination of another activist, Fahim al-Taie, in December 2019.
“Telephone communications on the topic of these assassinations between Muslah and the direct perpetrators, threats to relatives, witness testimony, explanations received under questioning – all (these things) were supplied” to the judges, the official added.
The evidence implicated Muslah in the assassination of both Wazni and al-Taie, the official said.