Iraqis angry over transfer of counter-terrorism commander

US-trained soldier Abdulwahab Al Saadi is considered a hero of war against ISIS

FILE - In this June 27, 2016, file photo, Lt. General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, commander for the Iraqi counterterrorism forces' operation to re-take Fallujah from Islamic State militants, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at a military camp outside Fallujah, Iraq. Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019 removed Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi from his post as the commander of the country's elite counterterrorism forces and transferring him to the Defense Ministry, without providing an explanation. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
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Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's decision to remove a top military commander from his position has caused a social and political uproar across the country as it tries to balance tensions between its two major allies, Washington and Tehran.

Lieutenant General Abdulwahab Al Saadi, 56, was relieved of his post as deputy head of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service on Friday and transferred to the defence ministry without any reason being given.

Many Iraqis consider Lt Gen Al Saadi a national hero for his role in recapturing the city of Mosul from ISIS in 2017. He was wounded four times in battles against the extremists.

His dismissal sparked speculation that some of Iraq’s Iran-backed politicians were uncomfortable with the popularity of the US-trained soldier. The counter-terrorism force he commanded was also trained and equipped by the US-led coalition against ISIS.

Husham Al Hashimi, an Iraqi security and political expert, said the removal of Lt Gen Al Saadi proved that the CTS was the only national body that was not subject to partisan quotas.

"The decision was based on pressures exerted by Iranian-backed officials in Baghdad to remove any figures and leaders who are inconsistent with their political and military vision in countering terror," Mr Al Hashimi told The National.

The issue has become personal after Lt Gen Al Saadi publicly called the prime minister's decision an “insult” and a “punishment”, prompting Mr Abdul Mahdi to object to the comments and say the decision was irreversible.

“It comes during a critical time where the war against ISIS continues, which puts Baghdad’s victory against the terrorists at a standstill,” Mr Al Hashimi said.

The move will weaken the public’s trust in future decisions taken by leaders, he warned.

Jaber Al Jaberi, an Iraqi member of parliament, said people were objecting to way the situation was handled.

"If Lt Gen Al Saadi committed any mistakes or did not conduct his job properly then the prime minister should have referred him to an investigation committee," the MP told The National.

The way he was removed from his position was humiliating, especially given his military achievements and the status he held, he said.

“He is a professional and has been and will be loyal to Iraq and has not had any affiliation to any political parties,” Mr Al Jaberi said.

The parliament’s security and defence committee plans to formally ask Mr Abdul Mahdi to explain the reasons for his decision.

"The decision is unfair and raises a number of questions about the government's treatment and appreciation towards champions and those that played a vital role in liberating the country from terrorism," an Iraqi security source told The National.

Online, a hashtag “We are all Abdulwahab Al Saadi” began trending on Twitter with users sharing photographs of the officer assisting civilians in Mosul and other cities recaptured from the extremists.

In Baghdad on Sunday, several hundred people protested against the prime minister's decision and said “foreign hands” were behind the move.