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July 6, 2020 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1520

Iraq On The Path Of National Recovery From Iranian Hegemony – Part IV: Three Days In Baghdad: Al-Kadhimi's Raid On Iran-Backed Kata'ib Hizbullah (26-29 June, 2020)

July 6, 2020 | By S. Ali
Iran, Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1520

In the early hours of Friday, June 26, 2020, the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (ICTS) raided a base of the powerful Iran-backed Kata'ib Hizbullah (KH) in Al-Dora, southern Baghdad, after obtaining intelligence information that a "terrorist act" against foreign missions was underway.

Ten days earlier, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi ordered Iraqi security forces "to step up their intelligence efforts and take the necessary measures to find those behind the rocket attacks targeting Iraqi facilities and foreign missions." On the same day, Iraqi security forces found two rocket launchers that were prepared to fire in south Baghdad along with "important information that will help identify those behind this terrorist act."[1]

The Iraqi Government's Account Of The Raid

On June 26, several hours after the raid, the Iraqi Joint Command issued a statement describing the event. It said that "relevant agencies had closely monitored new intentions to launch rocket attacks against government targets inside the Green Zone." Without mentioning KH by name, it noted that "the location of the group [...] was determined based on intelligence information, and an arrest warrant was issued against them [the suspects] by the Iraqi judiciary, in accordance with the anti-terrorism law.[2]

"Accordingly, the Counter-Terrorism Service was tasked with the mission of arresting [suspects] in order to prevent a terrorist act against state facilities [...] The mission was carried out with a high level of professionalism, 14 suspects were arrested, and the criminal evidence, represented by two rocket launchers was seized," said the statement. "Upon completion of the raid a special investigation committee was formed by the Ministry of the Interior, with the membership of relevant security services. The detainees were placed in the custody of the security authority relevant to their jurisdiction until the investigation is completed, and their case will be decided by the judicial authority."


A statement issued by the Iraqi Joint Command on the details of the raid (Source: Facebook, June 26 2020)

Addressing the aftermath of the raid, the statement said that after the arrests, "armed parties using unlicensed government-owned vehicles headed to ICTS headquarters in the Green Zone and tried to provoke ICTS [forces], in clear violation of the constitutional and legal authority of the Commander-in-Chief. These groups seek to stay outside the control of the state."

It concluded by saying: "While stressing the gravity of this behavior and its threat to the security of the state and its democratic political system, we also want to indicate that these entities have used the state's resources, a matter that we will not allow under any pretext. We affirm our determination to continue our march to achieve security for the Iraqi people and we will refer the case to the judicial authority." However, despite this firm statement, three days later, on June 29, the release of 13 of the 14 detainees was ordered by a judge, who stated that there was a lack of sufficient evidence to indict them. 


A letter issued by the Joint Command assigning the Ministry of Interior, Iraqi Intelligence Service and PMU security to be in charge of the investigation (Source: Ultrasawt.com, June 26 2020)

Kata'ib Hizbullah's Account Of The Raid

A few hours after the raid, social media accounts affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) circulated a video showing dozens of armed KH vehicles driving through central Baghdad in a show of force, threatening to free the detainees from the raid by force and attack ICTS and President Al-Kadhimi if the detainees were not released.[3]

Shortly afterwards, KH senior commander Abu Ali Al-Askari tweeted that "all the detainees are now free, after their comrades launched an assault to release them from the clutches of Al-Kadhimi, the traitor." He also described Al-Kadhimi as a "mutant" who wants to "shuffle the cards," and offer "a new token of his espionage" to the United States by arresting KH fighters.[4]

PMU social media accounts circulated two photos showing "all the detainees who were immediately freed by their [KH] colleagues," also claiming that "Al-Kadhimi apologized to KH commander Abu Fadak."[5]


Abu Ali Al-Askari's tweet (Source: Telegram, June 26, 2020)


Photos circulated by PMU-affiliated social media accounts claiming the detainees were released a few hours after raid. (Source Telegram, June 26, 2020)

Al-Askari maintained that the raid targeted "two licensed PMU logistic support units that had no military force" and  that at 4: 00 a.m. [on June 26, that is, three hours after the raid], Al-Kadhimi was forced to hand over the "abducted young men" to a PMU unit, after detaining them, uncuffed, in a PMU guest house. "We took care of their legal situation after [Al-Kadhimi] ordered a judge to fabricate malicious cases against them," said Al-Askari, adding that Al-Kadhimi has promised not to repeat these "childish acts" again.[6]


Abu Ali Al-Askari's tweet (Source: Twitter, June 29, 2020)

A few hours later, PMU-affiliated social media accounts published photos of the released detainees holding the Iraqi flag while stepping on photos of Al-Kahdimi. Other photos showed them in what appears to be a PMU facility, burning U.S. and Israeli flags.[7]


Photos of the release suspects (Source: Alhurra.com, June 30, 2020)

Al-Itjah, KH's satellite channel, later aired an interview with six released detainees, claiming that "Americans" had taken part in the ICTS raid. They noted that they are part of the PMU's logistic support units, adding that it is natural that a PMU location will have missiles and weaponry. "What did you think you would find in a PMU location? A Sack of potatoes?" joked one of the six interviewees.[8]

The Iraqi Government's Reaction

Neither Al-Kadhimi nor any other high-level government official issued a statement concerning the raid and its outcome. Only on June 30 did the Iraqi Government Spokesman, Ahmad Mulla Talal, officially acknowledge that 13 out of the 14 detainees were released by a judge's order, and that "the [remaining] detainee is now in the custody of the Iraqi judicial system". He added that Al-Kadhimi ordered the raid after receiving confirmed intelligence that this person was planning an attack on sensitive government facilities and diplomatic missions. He explained that constitutionally, Al-Kadhimi cannot interfere in the work of the judicial system, adding that the original arrest warrant issued by a judge included one person only, and that the 13 others were arrested as a precautionary measure after they were found in the same location. We may note that the initial statement by the government mentioned the issuance of warrants, in the plural.[9]

Talal declared that "the government's main objective is to restore the stature of the state. "It is not the intention of this government to belittle itself or to act like small entity when dealing with other parties that are part of its entities," he said. The spokesman added that the government's efforts to restore its stature include Iraq's border outlets. He said that Al-Kadhimi will "soon" announce new, decisive measures to stop the "mafias" who are behind the corruption and the waste of state revenues. He further stressed that Al-Kadhimi is serious about addressing the issue of the salaries of ghost employees who receive multiple salaries from the government. "Not two salaries, but multiple ones," he said, revealing that the Education Minister handed Al-Kadhimi a list of employees, each of whom is receiving four or five salaries.

The PMU's Reactions

While PMU Chairman Falih Al-Fayadh refrained from issuing any statement during and after the raid, factions that are under the PMU's purview, particularly those known to have loyalty to Iran, were extremely vocal in condemning the raid and threatening the Iraqi government and the U.S. Their enraged statements indicate a strategy of further escalation, as they expressed their rejection of Al-Kadhimi's plan to confine weapons to state authority.

PMU factions which are aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani refrained from commenting on the raid. However, social media accounts affiliated with Iran-backed factions disseminated rumors that Al-Sistani's factions had sent a letter to Al-Kadhimi to protest the raid. Maytham Al-Zaidi, commander of Al-Abbas Combat Division later denied this.[10]


Al-Sistani-backed Al-Abbas Combat Division's statement (Source: Facebook, June 30, 2020)

On June 29, the day 13 detainees were released, the Secretary General of the Ka'taib Sayed Al-Shuhda' militia, Abu Al'a Al Wala'i tweeted that "attacking the Mujahideen, arresting them, and then releasing them all, without presenting evidence [...] is a dangerous precedent which confirms that the tips, information, and intentions [behind the raid] were all American."[11]

On June 30, Kata'ib Hizbullah Secretary-General Ahmad al-Hamidawi said that "the weapons of the Islamic resistance are a fundamental and legitimate right and will not be given away except to [the awaited] Imam Mahdi.[12] The weapons will not be restricted or taken away." On the same day, KH commander Abu Ali Al-Askari echoed the same statement in a tweet.[13]

In a tweet on June 30, the Al-Nujaba Movement Secretary-General Akram Al-Ka'abi  described the raid on KH as "an attempt by agents and traitors to target the resistance [groups]," warning that the situation is sliding into more dangerous waters, because "the [U.S.] occupation does not want to leave Iraq and is ordering its disgraceful agents [Al-Kadhimi and ICTS] to betray and inflict harm upon the resistance."[14]

He further proclaimed the group's refusal to hand over weapons, and accused the Iraqi government of "turning a blind eye to [Kurdistan's] Peshmerga and other armed groups that were trained by the U.S. forces in the Ain Al-Assad base." He then urged PMU factions "to enhance their capabilities more than ever" in preparation for what he called "the great epic."


Al-Ka'abi's tweet (Source: Twitter, June 30, 2020)

However, it was Qais Al-Khazali, Secretary-General of the Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH), who adopted the most aggressive tone of all. In a one-hour televised speech on Al-Ahd TV on June 26, 2020, Al-Khazali said: "Neither you [Al-Kadhimi] nor the people who might cooperate with you  – nor the American forces or anyone else – can stop the Iraqi people and the resistance fighters from driving out the American forces if they do not leave peacefully. Your duty is to make a diplomatic effort to persuade them to leave, but it is not your duty to defend them." [15]

He added that the raid against KH fighters is unprecedented in the history of Iraqi governments: "[Previous governments] never did this and if anyone wanted to do it, he was unable to. They would all ignore this issue. They kept quiet about it, because deep inside, they did not consider this to be wrong [...] I hope it is clear, that it would be a mistake to go too far in this direction," he said.

It may be worth noting that according to PMU media director Mohamand Al-Uqabi, Iraq's PM held meeting on July 1 with the ICTS and the PMU commanders, PMU Chairman Falih Al-Fayadh and ICTS commander Abdul Wahab Al-Sa'idi, aimed at resolving the tension that has erupted between the two bodies following the raid. The prime minister was quoted to have said that "some parties exploited recent events to incite trouble between the two sides."[16]

However, no statement was issued by the Iraqi government to confirm that the meeting took place.

Iran's Reaction

After two days of silence, Iran's Foreign Ministry finally commented on the arrests of June 29, saying that the Iraqi authorities' arrest of members of the KH "is an internal Iraqi affair," and that "Iran does not interfere in Iraqi internal affairs." Commending the PMU as an Iraqi armed force, the statement said that Iran has confidence in the ability of the Iraqi government to "overcome obstacles and manage internal issues in the best way, and to push Iraq towards the necessary stability, calm, and security."[17]

Iran's state-run media gave straightforward coverage of the raid and its aftermath, quoting PMU commanders' response to the raid. However, the Al-A'lem News Channel aired a report on July 1, marking the 100th anniversary of Iraq's 1920 revolution against British colonialism. Quoting several Iraqi officials and PMU commanders, the program reflected on the implications of the raid, concluding that "the 100th anniversary of the 1920 revolution against the British occupation should remind everyone of  the necessity of preserving the legacy of the resistance, and of its significance as a tool for deterring all foreign malicious plans. [...] The anniversary is a platform for renewing the determination to remove the occupying American forces from the land of Iraq."[18]

The Al-A'lem News Channel published several follow-up reports on the raid, tracing the reactions of Iraqis on social media and steering its audience toward favoring KH. One video posted on the channel's website on June 30 described the night of the raid as "the night in which the Americans wanted to set Baghdad on fire." The accompanying video infographic included footage showing ICTS inside the Green Zone while another clip showed KH armed vehicles driving through Baghdad's downtown on the night of the raid. The rest of the video shows signs placed in public squares condemning U.S.-Israeli "aggressors." The video's captions claim that based on the testimonies of the released detainees, "American elements" were among the forces that arrested them.[19]


Al-A'lem's video infographic, June 30, 2020

Reactions On Social Media

While it is hard to measure the public's reactions relying on social media, a preliminary assessment of what has been posted on Twitter provides some insight on how people have perceived the raid.[20]  The majority of moderate-leaning Iraqi social media users, particularly among supporters of the October 2019 protests, showed support for Al-Kahdimi and the ICTS forces, and anti-PMU sentiment. Videos on social media also showed protesters in Baghdad's Tahrir Square celebrating the raid and chanting "Hizbullah turned into a joke."[21]


Caption reads: "In support of ICTS against the militias and parties." Photo shows ICTS senior commanders. (source: Twitter: June 26, 2020)


Cartoon depicting Abu Fadak, KH commander with his ear is being twisted by ICTS. Hashtag above reads: Everything except Iraq (Source; WhatsApp, June 26 2020)

On the other hand, social media users who are close to the PMU expressed the opposing narrative, posting threats against Al-Kadhimi and ICTS and relying on fake news and rumors.


Caption reads: "Why would you play with the fire, you trash [Al-Kadhimi]. America will not protect you if the Hashad [PMU] get to you first". Hashtag above reads: "Everything except Hashad" [PMU]. (source: Twitter: June 25, 2020)


Caption Reads: "A photo shows Abdul Wahab Al-Sa'idi [ICTS commander] with the Zionist Bernard Levy, the godfather of the Arab uprisings." (source: Twitter: June 26, 2020)

Why Carry Out The Raid Now?

With one month in office, Al-Kadhimi's raid took place amid a deteriorating economy and growing challenges. The Iraqi public has started to question Al-Kadhimi's ability to deliver on his promises, which had initially raised high expectations. However, some of his moves, including his visit to the PMU headquarters, were criticized by moderate Iraqis, who saw the visit as a withdrawal from his early promises to restore the state's stature. [22]

Meanwhile, rocket attacks against U.S. targets have intensified, and in June alone, six rocket attacks against U.S. targets took place.[23] These attacks challenged Al-Kadhimi's authority as Chief Executive and could have hurt his relations with the U.S. Thus, the need to stop the attacks became pressing and urgent, and the raid served a dual purpose: It aimed to both address Washington's concerns and restore the trust of the Iraqi public in Al-Kadhimi's ability to lead and respond to threats to his government image by major militias like KH.

Implications

The raid on KH fighters highlights the challenging mission ahead of Al-Kahdimi in curbing the influence of Iran-backed militias in Iraq. While the outcome of the raid may have somewhat damaged Al-Kadhimi's image as an efficient Commander-in-Chief, it also demonstrated his serious approach - although his silence following the raid is difficult to explain. The ultimate effects and end-results of the move cannot be predicted at this time.  

Qais Al-Khazali understood Al-Kadhim's message, when he bitterly noted (see above): "the raid on KH fighters is unprecedented in the history of Iraqi governments. They never did this." But more than that, the scheme to launch rockets against American facilities is now established as a criminal act. The charges against the detainees are based on the Iraqi anti-terrorism law, and one person, described as being responsible for the plot against American forces, is still detained. For Al-Kadhimi to prove his point, one case may be enough.

The raid has prompted a unified position by some rivaling PMU factions, at least temporarily.[24] On the other hand, it has contributed to the surfacing of an overt political support for Al-Kadhimi in parliament. On July 1, a group of 40 MPs from different sects and ethnicities, led by Al-Hikma bloc leader Ammar Al-Hakim, announced the establishment of "Iraqyoon," i.e. Iraqis, an alliance aimed at supporting the Al-Kadhimi Government.

 


[1] Nasnews.com, June 26, 2020.

[2] Facebook.com/iraqicts, June 26, 2020.

[3] Telegram, Tweet92, June 26, 2020.

[4] Telegram, abualaskary, June 26, 2020.

[5] Telegram, Tweet92, June 26, 2020.

[6] Telegram, abualaskary, June 29, 202

[7] Alhurra.com, June 30, 2020.

[8] Youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=IDLWGWVYR_k&feature=emb_logo, June 29, 2020.

[9]  Youtube.com/watch?v=yT6ZHRLeEYc&feature=emb_logo, June 30, 2020.

[10] Facebook.com/alabbas.combat, June 30, 2020.

[11] Twitter.com/aboalaa_alwalae, June 29, 2020.

[12] Kataibhezbollah.com/news/3094, June 30, 2020.

[13] Twitter.com/abualialaskary, June 30, 2020.

[14] Alarabiya.net, June 30, 2020. 

[16] Alsumaria, July 1, 2020.

[17] Shafaaq.com, June 29, 2020.

[18] Alalamtv.net, July 1, 2020.

[19] Alalamtv.net, June 29, 2020.

[20] ultrairaq.ultrasawt.com, June 26, 2020.

[21] Twitter.com/HaiderAhmedHA, June 26, 2020.

[23] Rudaw.net, June 22, 2020.

[24] Ninanews.com, July 6, 2020.

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