Iraqi security forces interrogated pro-Iran fighters on Friday (June 26th) detained for planning a rocket attack in the country's first such raid.
Since October, nearly three dozen deadly rocket attacks have hit US military and diplomatic installations in Iraq, with the US blaming pro-Iran faction Kataib Hizbullah.
The latest occurred Monday when a Katyusha rocket slammed into the Baghdad airport, landing near a complex where US soldiers and diplomats are housed.
Just before midnight Thursday, the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) stormed a base in southern Baghdad used by Kataib Hizbullah, also known as Brigade 45 of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), Iraqi officials and security sources said.
They told AFP that more than a dozen Kataib fighters were arrested, but an official statement from Iraq's Joint Operations Command (JOC) on Friday did not specify which group had been targeted.
It said the operation was based on intelligence about a planned attack on the Green Zone, where the US embassy and other foreign missions, government buildings and UN offices are located.
"Fourteen people were arrested and evidence of the crime confiscated, including two rocket launchers," the JOC statement said.
The raid is the boldest act yet against Iran-backed groups based in Iraq.
Washington is pursuing a "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran and sees groups like Kataib Hizbullah as a dangerous extension of Iran's influence.
The US has blamed the militia for rockets that have killed several UK, American and Iraqi forces since October.
But Kataib Hizbullah has been nominally integrated into the Iraqi state, and former prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi hesitated to take strong action against the group.
Such calculations appear to have changed under new Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi, seen by Washington as a friendly figure but despised by Kataib.
The group accuses Kadhemi of complicity in the US killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and PMF deputy head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January.
Following the raid, "government vehicles" had attempted to surround CTS headquarters, according to the JOC statement.
The JOC statement also said Iraq's judiciary had issued arrest warrants for Thursday's operation under the counter-terrorism law, which carries the death penalty.
But it remains unclear exactly which authority will be responsible for bringing to trial or sentencing the suspects.
"They are being interrogated by the PMF security apparatus and will appear before a PMF judge," a source from the PMF's security force told AFP.
"They are pressuring us to release them," the source said.
The detained militiamen include "three prominent Kataib Hizbullah leaders specialised in launching rockets, in addition to an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] officer", said Thaer al-Bayati, secretary general of the Council of Arab Tribes in Salaheddine.
Iraqi forces conducted the raid after receiving intelligence that the militia planned to carry out a major rocket attack on the government headquarters and US embassy in the Green Zone, and the Military Intelligence headquarters in al-Khadhimiya, north of Baghdad, he said.
Tension prevailed in Baghdad early Friday as videos posted online showed a deployment of militia vehicles near the Green Zone.
Media reports said that militia leaders, including Abdul Aziz al-Mohammedawi (Abu Fadak), Abu Zeinab al-Lami, who heads the Popular Mobilisation Forces' security apparatus, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader Qais al-Khazali, were leading this movement to pressure the government into releasing the detainees.
Since the raid, militia leaders have been in a state of confusion and have instructed their followers to raise the level of alert, al-Bayati said.
"They plan to hold a meeting Friday in the area of Palestine Street in eastern Baghdad to discuss these developments," he said.
Iraqi citizens welcomed the operation, expressing support for the security forces.
"I support the [CTS] and all our security forces in their efforts to arrest militiamen and put an end to their activities that threaten our country's safety," a resident of Baghdad's al-Shaab neighbourhood told Diyaruna.
The operation is a "heroic and bold act" and a "strong message to Iran and its followers that Iraq will no longer be the stage for their terrorist operations", he said
"This is the first direct confrontation with the armed groups loyal to Iran," another Baghdad resident told Diyaruna.
"It seems that the government is serious in its effort to limit their activities and eliminate their threat."