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Iraqi security forces detain members of Iran-backed militia during raid

Iraqi officials say group targeted was Kataib Hezbollah, which US accuses of firing rockets at bases hosting its troops
Members of the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary force take part in parade in southern Iraqi city of Basra earlier this month (AFP)

Iraqi security forces raided a headquarters belonging to a powerful Iran-backed militia south of Baghdad late on Thursday, seized rockets and detained more than a dozen members of the group at the site, Iraqi government officials and paramilitary sources said.

The officials said the militia group targeted was the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah, which US officials have accused of firing rockets at bases hosting US troops and other facilities in Iraq, Reuters reported.

Iraqi government officials and paramilitary sources then gave contradicting versions of what followed.

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The paramilitary sources and one government official said those detained were transferred shortly afterward to the security branch of Iraq's paramilitary umbrella grouping, the Hashd al-Shaabi.

A second government official denied any such transfer and said the militiamen were still in the custody of other security services. The sources gave different numbers for those detained. A Hashed al-Shaabi official said it was 19. A government official said it was 23.

Iraq's new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has indicated he will be tough on militia groups that target US installations. The raid, which took place after midnight, is the first sign Kadhimi may follow through on his tough talk.

It took place after a number of rocket attacks near the US embassy in Baghdad and other US military sites in the country in recent weeks.

The US has blamed Kataib Hezbollah for the attacks and has retaliated twice, in both cases after rockets killed US military personnel stationed at Iraqi bases, AFP said.

Powerful faction

Kataib Hezbollah is a powerful faction within Hashd al-Shaabi, a network of armed groups that have been integrated into the Iraqi security forces. They are known to be close to Iran and deeply opposed to the US presence in the region.

There was no immediate comment from Iraqi militia groups or from Iran. Both Tehran and Washington supported Kadhimi in becoming prime minister in May.

Earlier, one of the government officials told Reuters that three leaders had been detained in the raid, one of whom was Iranian. Iraqi special forces from the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) carried out the raid, he said.

The CTS was set up by US occupation forces following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and is largely seen as a force friendly to Washington. 

Its commander, Abdulwahab al-Saadi, was appointed last month by Kadhimi. 

The official said the three detained leaders were handed over to the US military. A spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq, however, said he "doubted" that Iraqi authorities had handed over the detainees.

Soleimani death

Tensions between Washington and Tehran especially on Iraqi soil have been high for at least a year.

It almost spilled into regional conflict in January after the US killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of Kataib Hezbollah, in a drone strike at Baghdad airport.

Washington and Baghdad are hoping for a reset of their relations after opening a strategic dialogue earlier this month that aims to better define their military, economic and cultural ties. 

As part of the talks, the US pledged to continue reducing in-country troop levels, which numbered about 5,200 last year.

Iraq, meanwhile, has vowed to "protect the military personnel" operating on its territory as part of the US-led coalition fighting remnants of the Islamic State group.