Iraqi forces arrest fighters from Iran-backed militia

Iraqi counterterrorism troops have arrested 14 members of a powerful militia after a raid that will be seen as a first test of the new prime minister’s ability to confront militants backed by Tehran.

Iraqi officials said the group, intercepted late Thursday evening, was planning attacks on the walled Green Zone of Baghdad.

The arrests are gunfire from unruly Tehran-linked militia groups that have undermined the Iraqi state and are accused by Washington of killing Americans.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief with long-standing ties to Washington and good relations with Iran, who was appointed Iraqi prime minister last month, has vowed to curb armed groups operating outside of control of State.

The people seized on Thursday night were from Kita’ib Hezbollah, one of the most powerful and unpredictable Shiite paramilitaries, who has been accused of dragging Baghdad into the dangerous standoff between the United States and Iran.

Renad Mansour, director of the Chatham House’s Iraq Initiative think tank, said the prime minister had taken a “fairly aggressive” stance in recent days and that his actions were likely to be supported by Iraqis, many of whom participated in the protests. against the militias the last time. year.

“The Iraqis want this to happen, they are fed up with these groups” and the crime they are associated with, Mansour said.

Iraq has a plethora of mostly Shiite Islamist paramilitaries, who were officially recognized in the fight against the extremist Sunni group Isis. But their image has been tarnished by the criminal behavior of some factions, and attempts by official security forces to bring them under control have failed.

The raid on KH was launched after Iraqi security forces received reports that a group was planning to target Baghdad’s green zone.

“They were caught red-handed,” said Michael Knights, security analyst at the Washington Institute think tank. The arrest of KH members “has never taken place before,” he added. “It really is a big deal.”

Thursday’s arrests sparked fiery rhetoric from the KH, some of whose fighters receive government salaries. KH accused Mr. Kadhimi of “offering[ing] a new sign of betrayal to his American masters ”.

In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of small rocket attacks over the cordoned area of ​​Baghdad which houses government buildings and embassies. Iranian-backed groups have long said they want US troops leading an anti-ISIS coalition to leave Iraq.

KH militants are accused by Washington of launching a series of rocket attacks at Iraqi facilities housing US personnel, which killed three Americans and a British soldier in December last year.

Iran, which is in an arm’s length confrontation with the United States, has deep influence in Iraq thanks to the militias it has trained and supported, as well as enormous political influence.

However, Mr Knights cautioned against interpreting the raid as a challenge to Iranian influence in Iraq. “This is an Iraqi prime minister who is dealing with an Iraqi faction,” he said, adding that KH and its Iranian allies appeared to have a “disagreement over strategy” that had divided their commanders.

The arrests are the latest setback for KH, Mr Knights said. Former leader of the Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis group was killed in Baghdad earlier this year by an American drone strike, alongside Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

Additional reporting Asmaa al-Omar in Erbil

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