Iraqi security forces raided a base belonging to a powerful Iranian-backed armed group in southern Baghdad and detained at least 14 members of the militia, sources told Al Jazeera.
The raid on Thursday night was the most blatant action by Iraqi forces against a major Iran-backed group in years and targeted the Kataib Hezbollah faction, which US officials have accused of firing rockets at bases that host troops. Americans and other facilities in Iraq.
Simona Foltyn of Al Jazeera, reporting from Baghdad, said Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service seized at least 10 rockets during the operation, which was carried out in an effort to prevent an impending rocket attack in the Area. Verde and Baghdad International Airport, both of which house US troops. “
“Subsequently, dozens of armed Kataib Hezbollah fighters arrived in the Green Zone and besieged one of the Anti-Terrorism Service buildings, demanding the release of the detainees, alleging that they were illegally arrested without an arrest warrant,” he said.
Kataib Hezbollah is part of the Iraqi security apparatus, he said, as the group is part of the state-funded Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a Shiite paramilitary dominated by armed groups backed by Iran.
What’s next for US troops in Iraq? (3:08)
The raid was the first sign that the new prime minister of the Iraqi government, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, intends to follow through on promises to crack down on groups that have attacked US facilities.
It took place after several rocket attacks near the United States Embassy in Baghdad and other American military sites in the country in recent weeks.
“If the detainees are released, this would be quite embarrassing for the new government,” Foltyn said, “since the raid was carried out on the orders of al-Kadhimi and the prime minister has made it one of his priorities to restrict weapons in the hands of the state and control groups like Kataib Hezbollah. “
Fear of climbing
The Reuters news agency said a spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq and Iraqi paramilitary sources denied claims that any of those arrested had been handed over to the US military.
A government official told Reuters that three Kataib Hezbollah commanders had been detained during the raid. One of those commanders was Iranian, he said. But a second PMF official told the agency that no Kataib Hezbollah commander was arrested.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran, especially on Iraqi soil, have been high for at least a year.
It nearly collapsed in a regional conflict in January after the United States killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and PMF commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone attack at Baghdad airport.
Iraq: in the shadow of the tensions between the United States and Iran (25:42)
Foltyn said Thursday’s events were “a throwback to December 31 of last year, when Kataib Hezbollah besieged the United States embassy within the Green Zone after the United States attacked its base on the Iraqi-Syrian border.”
She added: “Those events ended up escalating, culminating in the assassination of Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil. There is a fear that the events may escalate once again.”
Yasmin Amin-Zaki, an Iraq analyst and former head of communications for the United Nations mission in Iraq, described the raid as an effort by al-Kadhimi to assert control over the state.
Since the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), “it is increasingly clear that the greatest threat to the Iraqi state is these Shiite militias,” he told Al Jazeera from Memphis in the United States.
But curbing the PMF’s influence remains a major challenge for al-Kadhimi due to Iran’s support for the paramilitary force, which means that the power war between the United States and Iran is likely to continue in Iraq, Ami-Zaki said.
“What we are likely to see now is a stalemate between the two, as they continue this power war. And I think it is now becoming increasingly clear, particularly after the events of December 31, that these two countries are not necessarily interested To go to war with each other. But they are very interested and motivated to continue this power war in Iraq, “he added.
Both Tehran and Washington supported al-Kadhimi to become prime minister in May.
Al Jazeera and news agencies