Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi is “closely following” the situation after security forces raided the base of a powerful Iranian-backed militia and arrested several members, an Iraqi official said.
The Counter Terrorism Services raid on the Kataib Hezbollah group late on Thursday was the most brazen action by Iraqi forces against a major Iran-backed militia in years.
"The detainees have been taken to prison and will be subjected to a legal investigation. Rumours of their release are false," an Iraqi official close to Mr Al Kadhimi told The National on Friday.
US officials have accused Kataib Hezbollah, also known as Brigade 45 of Iraq's paramilitary umbrella grouping, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), of rocket attacks on bases hosting American troops and other facilities in Iraq.
“The security forces raided a unit used by Brigade 45, they seized several rockets launchers and arrested at least 13 fighters – including one foreigner – known as the 'Katyusha gang'," said the official, who asked not be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
The CTS media office said 14 men were arrested in the raid and they would remain in custody until the investigation was completed.
"Upon completion of the arrests, a special investigation committee was formed by the Ministry of Interior and the accused were given to security authorities. They will not be released until the completion of the investigation and their case is decided by the judiciary," the Security Media Cell said in a statement posted on Twitter.
The Iraqi official said the men were transferred to a prison under the supervision of the PMF and that their arrest warrant was issued by a judge who is investigating the case.
The raid comes after six rocket attacks targeting US embassy in Baghdad and US military sites over the past two weeks.
"Mr Al Kadhimi previously issued a warning to the groups to stop the attacks and he clearly stated that whoever attacks the public will be treated as a terrorist," the official said. "Nevertheless, the outlaw groups continued their activities and intended to bomb Baghdad International Airport and other locations around the capital."
He said security forces carried out the raid with the assistance of a foreign expert.
US responds to Iraq rocket attacks
Jaber Al Jaberi, an Iraqi member of parliament, told The National that the CTS raid on Kataib Hezbollah was an attempt to exert state authority and a test to see what the reaction might be.
"Indeed the reaction by the so-called axis of resistance was strong, where their armed and hysterical response revealed a lot about them, their capabilities and their non-compliance with the laws of the state," Mr Al Jaberi said.
A correspondent for the US-based Arabic TV station Al Hurra reported that hundreds of militias were seen entering Baghdad after the arrests.
Mr Al Jaberi said the arrests were a signal that Mr Al Kadhimi's government intended to make good on promises to take tough action against groups that have targeted the country, and predicted that Iraq would see "more of these kinds of events".
"The prime minister has the right to impose the rule of law and to restrict weapons to the hands of the state," he said.
A Kataib Hezbollah security official warned Mr Al Kadhimi to expect a response. “This is a sign of working for the Americans. The Kataib are waiting for you,” Ali Al Askari wrote on Twitter.
Hassan Salem, an MP linked to Asaib Ahl Al Haq, another Iran-backed militia, said the PMF was a component of the state and whoever attacked it would face severe consequences.
"Their fate will be just like ISIS – this message is to whoever gave the orders to arrest the men, whether it is the US occupation or its supporters," Mr Salem said on Twitter.
Sajad Jiyad, a Baghdad-based analyst, said Mr Al Kadhimi was sending a message that he is serious about confronting groups who undermine the rule of law.
“Iraq cannot move forward until the government is more powerful than other armed elements,” Mr Jiyad said.
“The reaction by Kataib Hezbollah showed that this will be a difficult task, and that Mr Al Kadhimi needs to build up more capability to ensure success.”
While the PMF is officially an Iraqi state institution, its command structure is separate from state security forces. Although not all of its members are aligned with Iran, it is dominated by militias loyal to Tehran who also wield considerable influence in Iraqi politics.
Iraq has increasingly become caught in the middle of a battle for regional influence between the United States and Iran, its two main allies.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran escalated over the economic sanctions the US imposed on Iran after pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal. They nearly spilled into regional conflict when the US killed Iran's military mastermind Qassem Suleimani and PMF chief Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis in a drone strike at Baghdad airport in January.
Mr Al Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief with no political affiliations, had promised to reassert Iraqi state sovereignty after taking office in May. He was appointed with the tacit support of both the US and Iran after parliament rejected two previous nominees, and took charge amid a mounting crisis over the coronavirus pandemic and loss of state revenue due to the falling price of oil.
Mr Al Kadhimi last month appointed Abdulwahab Al Saadi as the new head of the CTS. The force was created by US occupation forces following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.