Since Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was sworn in on May 7, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services (CTS) have taken part in several high-profile operations and seem ever more in the foreground of the country’s security efforts.
Their June 26 arrests of over a dozen Kataib Hezbollah (KH) fighters in a Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) headquarters in southern Baghdad sparked concern that the CTS might, however, end up targeted by Iran-linked factions.
This has not yet happened. The CTS have been widely praised as “heroes” since their key role in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) starting in 2014 and — though some Iran-linked factions say they are too close to the United States — for now the blame was placed squarely on the prime minister as well as the United States for its rumored involvement.
In a recent operation by the CTS in the Qarachogh mountains near the Makhmour district, over 50 supporting airstrikes were reportedly carried out, attesting to the confidence in the forces by both the international coalition and the Iraqi military.
The June 24 operation reportedly resulted in the killing of 12 IS operatives in Iraq’s notoriously difficult areas disputed between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government.
A CTS officer contacted by Al-Monitor who cannot be named as he had not received official approval to discuss the matter with the media said that the number of airstrikes was correct, but that most had been carried out by Iraqi helicopters.
In response to an emailed query, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) Media Operations told Al-Monitor July 1, “In the last 10 days, the coalition has conducted eight strikes, all in Iraq, in the vicinity of the [Qarachogh]/Makhmour mountains.”
One of Kadhimi’s first actions as prime minister had been to reinstate Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi as CTS head. The officer had gained immense popularity in the country for his role in taking large swathes of Iraqi territory from IS.
Months-long anti-government protests were initially sparked last autumn after he was removed from the position.
In the wake of the general tension wrought by the Kataib Hezbollah arrests, Kadhimi reportedly brought the CTS and PMU together in a meeting July 1 to calm tensions.
Iraq’s new prime minister has tried to engage all the country’s armed factions that seem willing to move forward with his plan to bring all weapons under state control.
This has led to repercussions. Shortly after he was sworn in, he drew criticism by some for being photographed in a PMU uniform while meeting with commanders of the Shiite-led fighting force. Some of these PMU have been accused of being involved in the killing of unarmed protesters.
Coalition Spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins III told Al-Monitor via WhatsApp July 1, “In recent weeks, there has been increased partnership among all the Iraqi security forces," adding, "The coalition works closely with the CTS specifically and exclusively for the anti-[IS] mission.”
The CTS was formed after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and trained and equipped by the United States.
Various Iran-linked armed groups have been careful not to openly criticize the CTS for the KH arrests, and ire was mostly directed at the prime minister.
KH spokesman Jaafar al-Husseini told Al-Monitor via WhatsApp after at least most of the detainees had been released June 29 that KH personnel had not had orders to fire on any other Iraqi forces. They thus had let themselves be arrested when the CTS arrived at their base, he said, noting it had been an official PMU base for three years.
Refraining from criticizing the CTS, he told Al-Monitor that those released had claimed that the United States had “taken part” in the operation and warned “Israel and America” not to interfere in the country or the "muqawama" — the Shiite Islamic armed "resistance" movement active mainly from Iran to Lebanon.
Member of parliament from the southern port city of Basra Faleh al-Khazali, who is also a commander in the PMU Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, claimed that false information had misled “our heroes” the CTS.
CJTF-OIR stressed in an email to Al-Monitor that the “arrest of the KH members was entirely an Iraqi operation. The Coalition did not provide support to the CTS operation.”
It has, however, provided a large amount of funding and equipment over the past few years to various Iraqi forces. The US-led international coalition continued its support for the CTS even when it stopped all training activities in the country early this year following an outcry sparked by the January killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani and KH leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a US drone strike near the Baghdad airport.
KH has accused Kadhimi of providing intelligence to the United States that led to the drone strike. The Iran-linked armed group, which was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 2009, was against his nomination as prime minister.
Col. Caggins noted to Al-Monitor, “This coalition has supported the CTS, the Iraqi army, air force, the Iraqi army aviation and other security forces in the Ministry of Defense — including peshmerga — with more than $5 billion of military equipment since we responded to the invitation to defeat Daesh (IS) in 2014.”
He added that the “CTS are exceptional at going after high-value targets including [IS] leaders, [IS] financiers, smugglers, media operatives — and that’s where their great training and great cooperation and great coordination with the intelligence services really works well.”
The Iraqi National Intelligence Service led by Kadhimi since 2016 is instead widely assumed to have been involved in the raid on the PMU based used by KH. Such an operation would presumably have required prior intelligence on the fighters present at the base.