Iraqi PM challenges Iran allies with raid on Katai’b Hezbollah
BAGHDAD –Thursday night was a hot night in Baghadad. The Iraqi military forces exchanged skirmishes with the militias, which ended with the arrest of 14 members of Katai’b Hezbollah, the most hardline Shia armed faction established by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iraq.
Iraqi security sources informed The Arab Weekly that the Katai’b Hezbollah brought in about 80 vehicles transporting its militia at dawn on Friday to surround the headquarters of the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), and demanded the liberation of some of its members detained by the CTS. The operation was directly conducted by Abu Fadak, the new commander of the Iran-affiliated brigades in replacement of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed along with Qassem Soleimani in a US raid earlier this year.
Heavily-armed vehicles roamed the streets surrounding the Green Zone, while their occupants shouted slogans hostile to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
The sources said that one of the detainees was an Iranian expert, specialized in missile engineering and guidance, and confirmed that Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization, intervened personally with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazemi to seek his release.
The raid was one of the most daring operations in years by the Iraqi security forces against a powerful armed faction backed by Tehran. US officials accuse Katai’b Hezbollah in Iraq of firing missiles at bases hosting American forces and other facilities in Iraq.
The incident highlights how difficult it is to confront the Iranian-backed factions, as these factions effectively dominate large sectors of security, political and economic institutions in Iraq.
The Joint Operations Command, the highest Iraqi military formation, said that on Thursday afternoon, it received “accurate intelligence information about individuals who had on previous occasions opened fire on the Green Zone and Baghdad International Airport,” referring to the rocket attacks by Iranian militias on foreign embassiesand military headquarters in Iraq.
The source added that the intelligence services had located “the whereabouts of the group and an arrest warrant was issued by the Iraqi judiciary in accordance with the anti-terrorism law. The task of arresting the wanted individuals and preventing further attacks on government sites was naturally assigned to the Anti-Terrorism Service, which carried out the operation with a high degree of professionalism, arresting the fourteen members of the group and seizing material evidence in the form of two launching pads.”
The Joint Operations Command added that “it had formed, immediately following the arrest, a special investigative committee composed of members of the security forces and chaired by the Ministry of Interior. The accused were taken into custody by the relevant security authority […] to be detained until the completion of the investigation and their appearance before the court.”
Before the Iraqi army issued its statement on the raid, government officials and paramilitary sources provided conflicting accounts of what had happened.
Paramilitary sources and a government official stated that the group of detainees were transferred shortly after their arrest to to the security wing of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
A second government official, however, denied this and said that the detainees were still being held by the security services.
A spokesman for Katai’b Hezbollah said that the CTS had released all of their detained members, but government sources quickly denied the news and said that the militias are purposely spreading false news to create confusion and detract attention from the importance of this operation.
The government sources said that the militias are using the fact of the release of individuals who had been arrested at the site of the operation to confuse public opinion, confirming that four of the detainees gave important confessions related to militia leaders and weapons storage sites in the vicinity of Baghdad.
The sources indicated that the detainees were held in a prison belonging to the Popular Mobilization Security Directorate, which is the relevant military jurisdiction in such cases, but their arrest warrants were issued by a judge of the Counter-Terrorism Service, who alone has the power to determine the duration of their detention.
The incident immediately triggered a major campaign against Kadhimi by the militia leaders and representatives of pro-Iranian political blocs, accusing him of inviting trouble between the CTS and the PMF.
Iraqi media under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps claiming the participation of US forces in the operation, an allegation totally denied by official Iraqi sources.
The sources said that information obtained from the investigation by the Iraqi military leadership matched information in the possession of the US military about three individuals accused of being involved in rocket attacks against civilian and military targets inside Iraq.
Observers expect the confrontation between the pro-Iran militias and the security forces to intensify within the coming days, especially after the tremendous show of force carried out by the Katai’b Hezbollah militia in Baghdad at dawn on Friday.
Political analyst Hisham al-Hashemi said that by authorising this unprecedented move, Kadhimi has regained his popularity which has slipped down following the (government’s) recent economic (austerity) measures.”
The bold move comes after the United States and Iraq began bilateral talks aimed at setting a framework for the presence of US forces in Iraq, strengthening economic and cultural ties, and reducing the number of US soldiers in the country. Last year, that number stood at 5,200 servicemen.
According to al-Hashemi, “the international coalition led by the United States is very happy with this step,” especially that Kadhimi, according to those close to him, is preparing to visit Washington, a trip that his predecessor was unable to secure during his year and a half in power.