Iraq assaults Iranian-backed militias accused of attacking US forces

BAGHDAD – Iraqi forces raided an Iranian-backed militia suspected of carrying out a series of rocket attacks against US forces, fulfilling the promise of the new prime minister to crack down on armed groups that have strained relations with states. United.

The Thursday night raid on the headquarters of the militia brigade, Khataib Hezbollah, was intended to “send a message that there is no red line and that no one is above the law and that everyone must be subject to it, “General Yahya Rasool, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s military spokesman, said on Friday.

There have been at least four attacks on Iraqi military bases and in Baghdad’s Green Zone in the past two weeks. The attacks were thought to be directed at US forces at bases and the US embassy, ​​which is located in the fortified Green Zone.

The United States blamed the militia for a rocket attack in December that killed an American civilian contractor, and one in March that killed three service members, including two Americans and one Briton. Khataib Hezbollah denied responsibility for both attacks.

The United States carried out airstrikes against the group each time. The air strikes in January triggered a series of events that brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran and led to a resolution in Iraq’s Parliament to expel US forces.

The US airstrikes in March killed three members of the Iraqi security forces, increasing tensions with Iraq.

Mr. al-Kadhimi took office in May promising a new approach, which includes cracking down on government corruption and strengthening the rule of law. He also promised to protect foreign diplomatic missions and international forces that serve at the request of the Iraqi government.

Seen as closer to the United States than its predecessors, this month opened a strategic dialogue with Washington aimed in part at restoring the size and mission of US troops in Iraq and obtaining commitments for economic aid.

By raiding Khataib Hezbollah, he became the first leader in the country to act against one of the Iranian-backed armed groups.

Iraqi counterterrorism forces detained 14 members of the militia, including a man who they said had been involved in previous rocket attacks and was believed to be planning another.

Armed groups, which were formed as voluntary militias to help fight the Islamic State in 2014, became national heroes in that war, which ended in 2018. Since then, many have proven to be an invaluable drag on the security forces. from the government, but some have. presented serious problems.

Of the more than 20 militias, only a few have close ties to Iran. But those groups, including Khataib Hezbollah, have become the most powerful. Most have political wings in the Iraqi Parliament, where they often press Iran’s interests.

Since 2017, the militias have been regularized and are now receiving wages, weapons and training from the Iraqi government.

Apparently they report to the Prime Minister, but in practice they maintain great independence. The legal status of some of these groups is murky because they are both part of the government security forces, but they also ignore Iraqi law.

Iran’s close ties to the militias, as well as to Iraq’s previous political leaders, inhibited efforts to act against the groups when they attacked Iraqi forces and the Green Zone. The powerlessness of the Iraqi government vis-à-vis Khataib Hezbollah became clear in January when several thousand militiamen marched in the Green Zone after the United States bombed Khataib Hezbollah bases in western Iraq.

Members of the group smashed the wall surrounding the United States embassy and set fire to some of the embassy guard posts. Then Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was slow to use force to protect the embassy, ​​and members of the militia left only after he promised to push through legislation to expel the US military.

Parliament passed a non-binding resolution demanding the departure of all international forces from Iraq, which has yet to be implemented.

While it is unclear what charges, if any, will come from Thursday’s raid, authorities said he sent a clear message to the militias.

“These parties do not want to be part of the state and its obligations and seek to remain outside the authority of the commander-in-chief of the constitutional and legal armed forces,” the Iraqi Joint Command said in a statement on Friday.

In addition, according to analysts, he sent a signal to the Iraqi police that the new prime minister was serious about law enforcement.

“Even if this operation does not lead to a legal or judicial outcome or ends with a political settlement or a judicial settlement,” Hosham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi security analyst, said, “he has still given the necessary message to the security forces.” . and the judiciary to allow them to overcome the fear barrier created by these armed groups. “

Falih Hassan contributed reports from Baghdad.