BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi security forces raided a fortress of a powerful Iranian-backed militia in southern Baghdad on Thursday and detained more than a dozen members of the group, government officials and paramilitary sources said.
The raid was the most blatant action by Iraqi forces against a major Iranian-backed militia in years and targeted the Kataib Hezbollah group, which US officials accuse of firing rockets at bases that host US troops and other facilities in Iraq.
He noted that new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, whose government is negotiating Iraq’s security, political and economic ties with Washington, intends to follow through on promises to control militia groups that have attacked US facilities.
Kadhimi took office in May with the support of Tehran and Washington, but faces a tough balancing act between Iraq’s two main allies, whose mutual hostility has repeatedly threatened to send the region into more conflict.
The military said the raid, carried out in the middle of the night by the U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Service, was aimed at militiamen suspected of firing rockets at foreign embassies in the fortified Green Zone of Baghdad and its international airport.
Iraqi authorities were questioning the 14 men detained during the raid, he said. The incident took place after several rocket attacks near the American embassy in Baghdad and other American military sites in recent weeks.
The aftermath of the raid showed how difficult it can be for Kadhimi to confront the Iranian-backed militias that have come to dominate much of Iraq’s security system, politics and economy.
After the operation, unidentified armed men drove vehicles to government buildings and CTS headquarters, the military said, while paramilitary officials demanded the release of the detained militiamen.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran, especially on Iraqi soil, have been high for at least a year.
It nearly spilled in a regional conflict in January after the United States killed Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone attack at Baghdad airport.
Kadhimi says he will not allow Iraq to become a theater for a confrontation between the United States and Iran.
Iranian-backed parties and factions have shown increasing hostility towards Kadhimi, who will travel to the United States in the coming weeks as part of talks on Iraq’s ties to Washington.
The United States has been reducing the number of its troops stationed in Iraq that are primarily tasked with fighting Islamic State Sunni Muslim militants, a mutual enemy of Baghdad, Washington, Tehran and the Shiite militias that Iran supports.
Before the army issued its statement on the raid, Iraqi government officials and paramilitary sources had given conflicting accounts of what happened.
Paramilitary sources and a government official said the detainees were sent to the security branch of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a paramilitary umbrella group.
The PMF is an Iraqi state institution. It contains factions loyal to Iran and others that are not, but it has been dominated by militias aligned with Iran.
A second government official denied any transfer and said the militiamen were still in the custody of other security services. A PMF source initially said 19 men had been detained. A government official said he was 23 years old.
A government official told Reuters that three Kataib Hezbollah commanders had been detained during the raid. One of those commanders was Iranian, he said.
The PMF source denied this, saying that no Kataib Hezbollah commander was detained and that there were no Iranians.
Report by John Davison; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Shri Navaratnam, William Maclean