Baghdad (AFP) – Iraqi security forces were Friday interrogating pro-Iran fighters detained for planning a rocket attack in the first such raid in a country caught in the tug-of-war between Tehran and Washington.
Since October, nearly three dozen deadly rocket attacks have hit US military and diplomatic installations in Iraq, with the US blaming pro-Tehran faction Kataeb Hezbollah.
Infuriated, Washington has demanded Iraq take tougher action to hold the perpetrators accountable and Thursday’s unprecedented raid appeared to be a response to this call.
Just before midnight Thursday, the elite Counter-Terrorism Service stormed a base in southern Baghdad used by Kataeb Hezbollah, also known as Brigade 45 of the Hashed al-Shaabi force, Iraqi officials and security sources said.
They told AFP that more than a dozen Kataeb fighters were arrested, but an official statement from Iraq’s Joint Operations Command (JOC) on Friday did not specify which group had been targeted.
It said the operation was based on intelligence about a planned attack on the Green Zone, where the US embassy and other foreign missions, government buildings and UN offices are located.
“Fourteen people were arrested and evidence of the crime confiscated, including two rocket launchers,” the JOC statement said.
– ‘We lie in wait’ –
The raid is the boldest act yet against Tehran-backed groups based in Iraq, which has long had to walk a fine line between its two main allies, Iran and the US.
Washington is pursuing a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran and sees groups like Kataeb Hezbollah as a dangerous extension of Iran’s influence.
The US has blamed Kataeb for rockets that have killed several UK, American and Iraqi forces since October.
But Kataeb has been nominally integrated into the Iraqi state, and former prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi hesitated to take strong action against the group.
Such calculations appear to have changed under new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, seen by Washington as a friendly figure but despised by Kataeb.
The group accuses Kadhemi of complicity in the US killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Hashed deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January.
“This monster called Kadhemi wanted to shuffle the cards to hide his participation in the criminal murder of two martyrs and their comrades, presenting a new token of his collaboration with his American overlords,” Kataeb spokesman Abu Ali al-Askari said after Thursday’s raid.
“We lie in wait,” he warned.
Following the raid, “government vehicles” had attempted to surround CTS headquarters, according to the JOC statement.
– Interrogations begin –
The JOC statement also said Iraq’s judiciary had issued arrest warrants for Thursday’s operation under the counter-terrorism law, which carries the death penalty.
But it remains unclear exactly which authority will be responsible for bringing to trial or sentencing the suspects.
“They are being interrogated by the Hashed security apparatus and will appear before a Hashed judge,” a source from the Hashed’s security force told AFP.
“They are pressuring us to release them,” the source said.
There was no comment from Kadhemi’s office or from the US, but Iraqi expert Hisham al-Hashemi said Washington and the anti-jihadist alliance it leads in Iraq would be pleased.
“The international coalition is happy with this step. Just storming these headquarters is enough for it,” he said.
He said Kadhemi would also restore some of his public ratings, which had plummeted in reaction to unpopular austerity measures aimed at fighting off the economic collapse triggered by a crash in oil prices.
Kataeb Hezbollah first began fighting US troops in 2003 during the American-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein and is the top armed Iraqi ally of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to specialist Michael Knights.
The CTS, meanwhile, was set up by US occupation forces following 2003 and is largely seen as a pro-US force.
In one of his first acts as premier, Kadhemi reappointed Abdulwahab al-Saadi, also seen as US-friendly, as CTS head.
Kadhemi then launched a strategic dialogue with Washington to discuss military, economic and culture issues.
As part of the talks, the US pledged to continue reducing the number of US troops in Iraq, based there to lead a global coalition helping fight jihadist sleeper cells.
Iraq, meanwhile, promised to hold the perpetrators of the rocket attacks accountable and Kadhemi recently convened his national security council to draw up a plan.
The start of the talks coincided with a significant spike in missile attacks, with six incidents targeting American installations over the last two weeks.
The escalation shattered the relative calm that had settled in since March, after a period of particularly high tensions between Iran and the US spilt over into Iraq.
Following the US strike on Soleimani, Iraq’s parliament voted to oust foreign forces, Iran launched ballistic missiles against American troops and the Hashed vowed revenge.