Iraqi counter-terrorism units raided the Baghdad headquarters of Kataib Hezbollah (KH) late Thursday night, capturing as many as 23 of the Iran-backed terrorist militia’s fighters, according to Iraqi officials.
The raid was seen as unusually bold and forceful compared to the Iraqi government’s previous treatment of the militia group.
Kataib Hezbollah is one of Iran’s most powerful proxy forces in Iraq. It has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government since 2009. It was responsible for a series of rocket attacks late last year against Iraqi bases where U.S. troops were deployed, ultimately killing an American civilian contractor with a rocket attack on a base near Kirkuk on December 27, 2019.
The group has enjoyed enormous support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and was a pet project of the IRGC’s Quds Force commander, terrorist mastermind Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was eliminated by a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad International Airport on January 3, 2020, along with the founder of Kataib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Reuters described the Thursday night raid as “the most brazen action by Iraqi forces against a major Iran-backed militia in years” and took it as a signal that Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, “intends to fulfill pledges to rein in militia groups that have attacked U.S. installations.”
The raid was conducted by the U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter-Terrorism service and was reportedly a response to rocket attacks on Baghdad International Airport and the “Green Zone,” the fortified section of Baghdad where foreign embassies are located. The KH militiamen arrested in the raid were suspected of involvement in the rocket strikes. Iraqi security reportedly obtained intelligence that the group was preparing further terrorist attacks targeting the airport.
“After the operation, unidentified gunmen drove vehicles towards government buildings and a headquarters of the CTS, the military said, as paramilitary officials demanded the release of the detained militiamen,” Reuters reported.
Prime Minister Kadhimi was initially supported by both Washington and Tehran but appears to be leaning more towards the United States, to the consternation of Iran and its allies in Iraqi politics. He became prime minister after a string of other candidates failed to secure the position amid public unrest across Iraq. Iran and its proxies were not thrilled by his appointment at first but accepted him as a compromise candidate after he signaled his intention to build bridges with Tehran.
Kadhimi has a reputation for political pragmatism and was an opponent of the late dictator Saddam Hussein and his socialist Baath Party. Before becoming a government official, he was a lawyer by training but was best known as a print and television journalist. He became the head of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service in 2016 and developed good relations with members of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq.
Kadhimi said on Friday he is “closely following” the raid against Kataib Hezbollah and the arrest of its fighters. Iraqi officials denied rumors that the raid was largely theatrical and most of the detainees were swiftly released.
“The detainees have been taken to prison and will be subjected to a legal investigation. Rumours of their release are false,” a source close to Kadhimi told the National on Friday.
“Mr. al-Kadhimi previously issued a warning to the groups to stop the attacks and he clearly stated that whoever attacks the public will be treated as a terrorist. Nevertheless, the outlaw groups continued their activities and intended to bomb Baghdad International Airport and other locations around the capital,” the National’s source said.
“Upon completion of the arrests, a special investigation committee was formed by the Ministry of Interior and the accused were given to security authorities. They will not be released until the completion of the investigation and their case is decided by the judiciary,” said a statement from the Iraqi security service.
One of the Iraqi officials who spoke to Reuters said the KH detainees – who number between 11 and 23 according to various reports – were handed over to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the umbrella name for Shiite militia forces given official sanction by the Iraqi government to fight against the Islamic State. Other rumors hold that some of the detainees are high-level KH commanders, at least one of the detainees is an Iranian national, and they were handed over to the U.S. military.
Kataib Hezbollah is one of the most powerful members of the PMF, and not the only one loyal to Iran. A senior KH official named Abu Ali al-Askari was the source of the rumor that the fighters captured in the raid were handed off to the PMF and released immediately.
“Kadhimi once again followed his American master’s orders, and implemented another plan of theirs in Iraq, after he was involved in the assassination of the two martyrs, while the fighters of the Hashd immediately gathered and released their fellow fighters in custody,” Askari wrote in a post on the secure messaging platform Telegram. The “two martyrs” he mentioned are Soleimani and al-Muhandis, while “Hashd” is an Arabic name for the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Another Iran-backed militia called Thaeir al-Muhandis (literally, “Revenge for Muhandis”) threatened to “cut off the heads of those who ordered the raid” and warned Kadhimi not to “test our patience.”
Kadhimi is due to visit Washington next month for the second round of talks in the first strategic dialogue between the U.S. and Iraq in over a decade. The first round of talks was held by teleconference due to the coronavirus pandemic. Rocket attacks by Iran-backed militia were among the topics of conversation.
The Jerusalem Post put the Iraqi raid together with renewed fighting in Yemen and Libya, Turkey’s offensives against Kurdish separatists in Iraq and Iran, a mysterious explosion in Tehran on Thursday night, and Iranian strikes against Kurdish militants to concluded that the Middle East is “undergoing a half-dozen wars at the same time that pit Iran and its proxies against the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia; and also Iran and Turkey against Kurdish militants; as well as proxy groups in Libya fighting each other and various Syrian groups fighting each other.”
“The overall picture is one of impunity, where Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia can carry out airstrikes in conflicts near their countries, whether Yemen or Libya or Iraq and there is little that the international community cares to do. There are no peace processes or peace talks or ceasefires. In fact these conflicts appear to be growing,” the Jerusalem Post observed.
Perhaps Iraq’s new prime minister agrees and wishes to prune back Iran’s militia forces and develop a better relationship with the United States before his country is pulled deeper into those conflicts.