Signs of change in Iraq?

Iraqi security forces raided a central command compound of an Iran-backed proxy group in southern Baghdad late on Thursday, June 25, detaining more than a dozen members of the group, government officials and paramilitary sources told Reuters. Other reports are indicating 23 individuals were arrested.

Iraqi security sources are saying those arrested not only played major roles in attacks on the U.S. Embassy and sites where U.S. bases are stationed/housed, they were also involved in planning for future attacks of similar nature.

The move is being described as the most brazen measure by Iraqi forces against a militia group backed heavily by Tehran in years and specifically targeted the Kataib Hezbollah, which U.S. officials accuse of firing rockets at bases hosting U.S. troops and other facilities in Iraq.

Kataib Hezbollah is the strong and most organized militia group affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Quds Force in Iraq. Their former leader was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a paramilitary umbrella grouping heavily backed by and under the influence of Iran’s regime.

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Iraqi security forces arresting members of Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah in southern Baghdad, Iraq – June 25, 2020

Reports indicate four Kataib Hezbollah senior commanders and 16 members, alongside at three one senior IRGC Quds Force were detained, according to an Iraqi official talking to the media on the condition of anonymity. There are also unconfirmed reports that all individuals detained in this raid have been transferred into the custody of U.S. forces. Iraqi security forces also confiscated a number of rocket launchers from the site, according to Reuters.

Spokesperson for the international coalition forces in Iraq, however, has denied any role in the raid targeting Kataib Hezbollah members in Baghdad’s Al-Doura district.

The Iraqi Joint Operations Command issued a statement saying the individuals were detained based on arrest warrants. Following the raid there were rumors on social media about the release of the detained Kataib Hezbollah and IRGC Quds Force members. None were confirmed and it appears pro-Iran users on various platforms had launched a desperate face-saving initiative considering the major embarrassment and realizing the consequences of the raid.

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Iraqi security forces conducting the Thursday night raid targeting the Kataib Hezbollah site in southern Baghdad, Iraq – June 25, 2020

Directly targeting Iran’s interests

The Iraqi military said the raid, carried out in the middle of the night by the U.S.-trained Counter Terrorism Service, was directed at militiamen suspected of firing rockets at foreign embassies in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone and its international airport.

Iraqi authorities were questioning the individuals detained during the raid, the statement adds. The incident took place after a number of rocket attacks near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and other U.S. military sites in recent weeks.

Before the military issued its statement about the raid, Iraqi government officials and paramilitary sources had given contradicting versions of what happened.

The paramilitary sources and one government official claimed those held were sent to the security branch of the PMF. Such statements further indicate Tehran’s need to save face following the raid.

A second government official, however, flatly denied any such transfer and said the militiamen were still in the custody of other security services. One PMF source initially said 19 men had been detained. A government official told Reuters it was 23.

After the operation, unidentified gunmen entered Baghdad’s Green Zone and drove vehicles towards government buildings and a headquarters of Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service, according to the military, as PMF officials demanded the release of the detained militiamen.

More footage of intimidating measures that were not fruitful at all for Iran’s regime and their Iraqi proxies.

Early Saturday morning local time there were reports of gunfire near the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad. Knowledge of Tehran’s tactics say these were measures aimed at intimidating the Iraqi government to release the detained individuals. Signs indicate the days of these measures being of any use are over.

Adding insult to injury

On Saturday, June 27, Iraqi media began reporting of significant changes in the Iraqi security hierarchy. Falih Fayyadh, the country’s National Security Advisor and PMF chief, was sacked from his government post and replaced by former defense minister Khaled al-Obeidi, a member of Iraq’s Sunni minority.

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Former Iraqi defense minister and now National Security Advisor Khaled al-Obeidi

It is worth noting that Fayyadh has very strong ties with Iran’s regime. There are further claims that Fayyadh has also been sacked from his role as the PMF chief. Don’t be surprised if he ends up in Iran in the coming days or weeks in fear of being apprehended by Iraqi or U.S. forces.

Former Iraqi national security advisor Falih Fayyadh seen with Iranian FM Mohammad Javad Zarif (Top), Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad (Bottom Left), Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (Bottom Center), and former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki (Bottom Right) who is described as one of Iran’s main allies in Iraq.

The message

This raid also signals that new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, whose government is currently in talks with Washington over Iraq’s security, political and economic ties with the U.S., intends to take serious action based on pledges made to rein in militia groups that have attacked U.S. installations.

Iran-backed parties and factions have shown rising hostility to Kadhimi, who is due to travel to the United States in coming weeks as part of talks over Iraq’s ties with Washington, according to Reuters.

Most importantly, this is a strong message to the mullahs’ regime in Tehran considering the billions they have poured into Iraq, especially after the 2003 war. Moreover, this further indicates Iran is losing the influence and grip it enjoyed on its western neighbor prior to the killing of Qasem Soleimani by the U.S. military on January 3 of this year.

This latest development indicates a strong initiative aimed at preventing Iran from taking advantage of the strategic talks between Baghdad and Washington, especially with only months left to the U.S. presidential election.

The balance of power in the region is shifting against Iran. This can also be seen in recent anti-Tehran demonstrations held in Lebanon and Syria.

To make matters even worse for Iran, crippling sanctions are leaving the regime economically bankrupt, thus preventing the IRGC from pouring cash into its proxies for further malign initiatives across the Middle East. And even more important for Tehran is the impact of these developments inside Iran. People across the Iran will realize the regime is weakened, further encouraging them to launch uprisings similar to that of November 2019.

Developments during the past few months are further indicating the importance of Qasem Soleimani’s elimination in weakening the IRGC Quds Force and Iran’s regime. This shows the downgraded status of regime Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the IRGC inside Iran.

Iran’s regional policies of warmongering and terrorism are tools used to strengthen the regime’s position inside Iran. When Tehran’s influence in the region is downgraded and weakened significantly, the regime’s crackdown machine inside the country also suffers a major blow. This is a nightmare scenario for the mullahs’ ruling Iran.

For now, the Iraqi people, such as those protesters who remain in Baghdad’s iconic Tahrir Square, are celebrating the recent turn of events. And the Iranian people are watching very closely.

Originally published in The Medium