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Iraqi forces arrest 14 linked to rocket attacks on US troops

An Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service soldier practices tactical reloads for the M4 rifle as part of the CTS’ advanced training near Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 8, 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Manne)
June 29, 2020

Fourteen men were arrested on Thursday by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in connection with a series of rocket attacks targeting U.S. forces in the country.

The Associated Press reported the arrests following an announcement on Friday by the Iraqi military. The Iraqi military statement did not explicitly link the 14 men to any specific group, however, two unnamed senior Iraqi officials told The AP that the men held ties to a pro-Iranian militia group. Radio Free Europe also reported the raid targeted a compound belonging to the Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia.

The 14 men arrested were accused of targeting U.S. installations at the Baghdad airport and inside the Green Zone, according to the Iraqi statement. Intelligence gathered before the raid also indicated they planned another attack on the Green Zone and two launching pads for rockets were reportedly uncovered during the arrests.

The arrests were carried out in a raid by Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service on Thursday night in the Baghdad neighborhood of Dora. The Iraqi military said a special investigative committee, formed to include the Interior Ministry, would handle the case against the arrested men.

The arrests follow a string of rocket attacks that have struck close to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s diplomatic Green Zone and other installations housing U.S. troops.

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The U.S. has blamed the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia for several recent rocket attacks in Iraq. The U.S. linked the pro-Iranian militia to a rocket attack at the end of December that killed a U.S. citizen, injured four U.S. service members and two members of the ISF. A U.S. retaliatory strike on the militia group incited further escalation as pro-Iranian groups surrounded the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and set fires around the diplomatic compound.

Two more U.S. service members were killed by rocket attacks in Iraq in March. Another recent rocket strike landed near the Baghdad airport.

It was unclear who was holding the 14 arrested men following the Thursday arrest. One official told The AP that they were being held by Iraqi’s Interior Ministry, while another official said the men were being held by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which comprise an umbrella over many Iraqi militias including the Kata’ib Hezbollah.

The PMF has also been linked to pro-Iranian actions, and two PMF officials were killed in a January strike targeting Iranian Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The new arrests, brought about under the leadership of the recently elected Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, may pose a challenge for Kahimi’s administration.

Kadhimi’s administration has already faced backlash for the arrests. According to the military statement, armed groups reportedly drove vehicles into the Green Zone and surrounded the headquarters of Iraq’s counter-terrorism agency following the arrest.

Another militia under the PMF’s umbrella, the Harakat al-Nujaba, warned against “any attempt to target them and draw the parties into internal strife.”

Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow at Chatham House foreign policy think tank, told The AP that the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia also holds some sway over key officials in Iraq’s judiciary.

“This will be difficult,” Mansour said of the efforts to prosecute the 14 arrested men.