BAGHDAD — A weapons depot exploded in a residential area east of Baghdad on Sept. 2, killing four people and injuring 11 others. The depot belonged to a militia affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).
Though no one has claimed responsibility yet, on Sept. 16, Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Sadrist movement and Saraya al-Salam faction within the PMU, accused unnamed militias of responsibility for this incident and said that some militias keep their arms depots in residential areas intentionally to ensure their domination over these areas.
According to official statements, the explosion caused dozens of missiles to fly over the neighborhoods of al-Obeidi, al-Mashtal, al-Batoul, al-Kamliya, al-Amari, al-Maamel, New Baghdad, Zaytouna, Palestine Street and the area around Shaab International Stadium.
The incident resulted in massive destruction stretching over 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), leaving destroyed houses and a massive crater.
The explosion angered Iraqi citizens at the government and militias for storing weapons and ammunition in residential areas, while militias accused each other of such practices.
On Sept. 4, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered military commanders to empty and close all arms depots in Baghdad and other governorates and to use the military stores and warehouses of the Ministry of Interior.
The Baghdad Operations Command formed a committee to investigate the incident but did not indicate that it would take measures to carry out Abadi's closure order.
The Baghdad Provincial Council’s security committee had previously called for removing the PMU weapons depots from residential areas and for coordinating with the Ministry of Defense to establish regulations for the storage of the factions’ weapons, according to Saad al-Matlabi, a member of the security council.
“The law prohibits the storage of weapons and military equipment in residential areas,” Matlabi told Al-Monitor. He said that the gun depots are a point of contention between the different armed militias and factions. He believes that political pressure is likely to complicate investigation into the explosion.
Matlabi also noted that the security committee does not bear any responsibility in this incident because, according to him, it is merely a monitoring authority and does not have the right to interfere or hold any faction or militias accountable.
The governor of Baghdad, Ali al-Tamimi, called on the federal government Sept. 3 to prevent the PMU from storing military equipment in the cities.
For its part, the PMU denied any knowledge of the weapons depot in a statement and said, “The PMU will take swift measures once the results of the investigation by the Baghdad Operations Command are out.”
PMU spokesman Karim al-Nuri declined to comment on the incident to Al-Monitor, explaining that he was not authorized to do so.
Youssef al-Kalabi, another spokesman for the PMU, also refused to comment on the incident, but noted that the results of the investigation will be announced in a timely manner and that the PMU has pursued a series of measures to prevent a recurrence.
The Shiite Al-Ahrar Bloc, which has a military detachment within the PMU, accused the League of the Righteous of storing weapons inside residential areas in a bid to strengthen their influence.
Rasul al-Tai a member of parliament for Al-Ahrar, told Al-Monitor that his bloc “holds the government responsible for keeping silent on the weapons depots in residential areas.” He demanded that a serious investigation be conducted into the cause of the explosion and the ownership of the depot, and that the results of the investigation be shared with the public.
Tai indirectly blamed the League of the Righteous for the depot explosion, saying that his bloc is boycotting the league and will not engage in any dialogue with it. He also said that the Peace Brigades, affiliated with the Sadrist movement, are ready to prevent such a thing from happening again should the government fail to take decisive action.
Jawad al-Talbawi, a leading figure in the League of the Righteous, denied the Peace Brigades' claim that the depot belongs to his group, stressing that the league does not have any arms caches in any city or residential area.
In a statement to Al-Monitor, Talbawi called upon the militia that owned the arms depot to “compensate the affected families of the martyrs and injured and the owners of the destroyed houses.”
There are two sources of armament for the PMU. The group receives military equipment both from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and Iran that are openly transported across the border between the two countries in large quantities, including medium- and long-range missiles to be used in the war against the Islamic State (IS).
Many observers said that Abadi’s decisions to remove weapons from cities was mere talk and will not be implemented. Political analyst Hisham al-Hashimi told Al-Monitor, “Abadi is the commander of the armed forces, yet he is unaware of the number of arms and ammunition depots and the places of storage.” He added, “The militias and factions are storing their arms in residential areas in a bid to ensure control over and influence these areas, where they are popular.”
Hashimi went on, “The disputes and disagreements between the different militias and factions are serious and sometimes lead to short, armed clashes. However, for the moment, these militias and armed factions are preoccupied with the war on IS, which is why they are not focusing on the infighting among themselves.”
The arms caches located in Shiite areas are not meant for use by Shiite militias against Sunnis in Baghdad. However, Iraq can expect to witness fierce battles between Shiite factions as part of the struggle for power, control and influence in the future.