The raid before the storm in Iraq

Salah Nasrawi , Thursday 2 Jul 2020

Last week’s crackdown on an Iran-backed militia in Baghdad was not unexpected, and nor will the backlash that is sure to come

The raid before the storm in Iraq
Iraqi soldiers surveying the launch site of a rocket attack in January that killed an American contractor on a military base near Kirkuk

Along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq sit places of worship where Muslim imams, sheikhs and sages are buried. For centuries, devotees have been drawn to the sites for prayers and meditation as well as to tap into the mystical powers of the shrines.

Shrines that prove to be lacking in the supernatural powers needed to help solve the devotees’ personal issues and meet their needs or provide clues that can serve as religious guidelines are derided and passed by as if they did not exist.

According to various Iraqi proverbs, there is also a belief that political leaders need to show the necessary powers and courage to make positive impacts and create history.

Yet, over the centuries anger over persecution and other harsh policies have led Iraqis to revolt and to topple leaders who have relied on brute force and ruthlessness as their greatest virtues.

It was this dilemma of democracy and tyranny that the Iraqis had hoped to resolve with the ouster of former dictator Saddam Hussein after the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.

When Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi moved last week to crackdown on an unruly Shia militia in the country, many Iraqis breathed a sigh of relief that they had finally got a leader prepared to end the miserable state of lawlessness of the post-Saddam era.

However, it would be quixotic to assume that Al-Kadhimi has succeeded in deterring one rogue militia using such means when there are also greater threats staring Iraq in the face, including risks of further escalation with other militias and with their sponsor Iran.

Iraqi security officers stormed a stronghold packed with rockets ready to be fired belonging to the powerful Iran-backed Kataib Hizbullah (KH) militia in Iraq on Friday in a blitz assault that detained more than a dozen members of the group.

A spokesman for Al-Kadhimi said the operation was carried out to “restore the state’s prestige” and to prevent rocket attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone that hosts key government offices and foreign diplomatic missions.

Iraq’s military said the predawn raid, carried out by the US-trained Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), was directed at militiamen suspected of firing rockets at foreign embassies in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone and international airport.

It said the Iraqi authorities were questioning 14 men detained during the raid, which had been based on intelligence gathered about a planned attack on the Green Zone. Unnamed officials told local media outlets that among the detainees were three KH commanders and one Iranian.

The raid was the most forceful action taken by Iraqi forces against a major Iran-backed militia in years, and it underscored Al-Kadhimi’s determination to rein in militia groups that have attacked US installations.

Friday’s raid took place after a number of Katyusha rocket attacks near the US Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone and other US military sites in recent weeks. The militias stepped up their assaults after the killing of Iran’s point man in Iraq Qassem Al-Suleimani and KH leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in January.

It is not clear whether Al-Kadhimi, who took office in May and faces a tough balancing act between the various Iraqi political and sectarian groups that are vying for power, aspires to be a strong leader, or if he is ready for a fully-fledged confrontation with the militias.

Upon taking office, Al-Kadhimi vowed that he would impose controls on the weapons possessed by non-state groups and would not allow Iraq to become a theatre for a US-Iranian showdown.

Hours before the CTS raid on the militia camp in a Baghdad suburb, Al-Kadhimi sent a stern warning to unruly militia groups that his government would “carry out campaigns” to reinforce law and order in the country.

“We will not let anyone threaten to destroy the Iraqi state or threaten the sovereignty of Iraq or its social fabric,” Al-Kadhimi told a group of journalists in a televised interview.

Yet, the militias’ reactions to the raid showed how difficult it will be for Al-Kadhimi to take on groups that have come to dominate large parts of Iraq’s government, security apparatus, politics and economy.

In the hours after the operation, scores of militiamen drove gun-mounted pickup trucks towards government offices and CTS headquarters demanding the release of fellow militiamen.

In additional to this show of muscle-flexing, a spokesman for the KH threatened that the group might kill Al-Kadhimi, accusing him of “betrayal.”

“This freak and his cronies should know that the sword of the resistance will punish them if they are saved from God’s punishment,” tweeted KH Spokesperson Abu Ali Al-Askari, who had previously accused Al-Kadhimi of complicity in the US killing of Al-Suleimani and Al-Muhandis.

Qais Al-Khazali, leader of the Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq militia, another staunch ally of Iran, warned that the crackdown was “a dangerous development that could trigger gigantic chaos.”

Al-Khazali, whose militia together with other Iran-backed groups forms the backbone of the Popular Moblisation Force (PMF) in Iraq, said the groups considered fighting the US occupation to be “a legitimate right.”

“You should have glossed over [the rocket attacks] as your predecessors did,” Al-Khazali said, addressing Al-Kadhimi. “Do not become involved in this because it is bigger than your government.”

The raid, however, has threatened to escalate tensions between the government and the Iran-backed militias, with questions swirling about whether Al-Kadhimi will continue to fulfill his pledge to rein in the groups.

Al-Kadhimi must realise that the raid on the KH stronghold is a potential game-changer that puts everything at stake unless he has a strategy to deal with a looming standoff.

He has sent a clear message to the militias that he will not back down by shunning threats and pressures to let the detainees go. Iraq’s Joint Operations Command, the country’s highest security authority headed by Al-Kadhimi himself, said accomplices will be put on trial.

Some security officials said they could face charges of terrorism, which are usually punishable by the death penalty under Iraq’s anti-terrorism law enacted to deal with militants such as Islamic State (IS) group fighters.

Nevertheless, pro-Iran media reported Monday that Iraq’s judiciary ordered courts to release the detainees who were photographed wearing tidy PMF uniforms and treading Al-Kadhimi’s pictures under their feet.  

But beyond the recent raid, Al-Kadhimi faces an intense dilemma and questions about his options if he decides to go after the militias, especially if a further crackdown generates massive retaliation.

This could be a manageable crisis that could be dealt with through short-term tactical steps. Yet, one possible scenario remains an outbreak of violence and warlike confrontation with all the Iran-backed militias, parties and factions that have already shown rising hostility to Al-Kadhimi.

KH is one of Tehran’s key proxy forces in Iraq, and it has long played a key role in furthering Iran’s influence in the beleaguered country.

The group, which has an estimated 7,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, has also been instrumental in the escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran in Iraq.

In case of a military confrontation veering sharply out of control, it is widely expected that other Iran-backed groups will join the fight against the government forces, spelling the threat of a bloody conflict.

Chief among the challenges to Al-Kadhimi is the need to act urgently to garner broad support from Iraq’s main political and communal groups for his effort to re-establish the rule of law in the country and prevent the militias from overtaking the state.

Al-Kadhimi seems to have enough public support for the crackdown on the militias, and Iraqis troubled by the spread of the coronavirus epidemic and the deteriorating economic situation in the country are eager to see Al-Kadhimi carry out much-needed reforms in the political system and the government.

Among the pressing public demands are fighting rampant corruption, providing public services and jobs, boosting economic growth and stopping armed groups from acting above the law.

But Al-Kadhimi will need to have the country’s key political parties, communal groups, parliament and security forces on board in order to secure a larger power base if he aims at mortally wounding the militias.

If a military confrontation with the militias becomes inevitable, Al-Kadhimi will also need international help, given the fact that the Iraqi security forces will need logistical and intelligence backup similar to that given by the International Coalition against IS.

Many Iraqis who long for stability assume that much of this will be possible if they have a strong leader who can guarantee their safety and bring the unruly armed groups under state control.

This is a time of trial for Al-Kadhimi and to prove his mettle he should make such undertakings happen and keep the militias in check while embarking on sweeping government reforms.

But even with a strong man at the top of the country’s government, Iraq will still need to change the post-Saddam political game, and this could create more problems to worry about than simply reforming the security sector.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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