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Spike in tensions in Baghdad following arrest of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq member

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As previously discussed on 24 December, Minister of Interior Othman al-Ghanimi asserted that security forces arrested an unnamed individual involved in the 20 December rocket attack against the US Embassy. No further clarification was provided in the statement or otherwise by official sources. Later reports indicate ISF arrested an Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) leader, identified in limited reporting as Husam al-Azirjawi, around 22 December. Anecdotal reports indicate the subsequent publication of the arrest set conditions for a shift from underground mediation efforts to publicized responses.

On 25 December, AAH military commander Jawad al-Talibawi said a member of their militia was arrested on criminal charges. He asserted that security services were interfering in the investigation, questioning the detainee on the rocket attacks, and attempting to gain a coerced confession for the 20 December rocket attack. Talibawi called for an investigation without political influence. On the evening of 25 December, AAH units reportedly conducted show-of-force movements in the Arasat and Palestine Street areas of east Baghdad city. Members threatened Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and the US as part of demands for the release of the detained member. This included unconfirmed reports indicating intent to mass outside the Iraqi National Intelligence Service’s office in the Karrada neighborhood unless the leader was released by 05:00 the following morning.

AAH members posing in threat warnings on 25 Dec. 2020 (social media)

In response to the militia threats, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ordered the deployment of sizeable security forces in diverse areas of central and east Baghdad city. This included what was described as the deployment of two Counter-Terrorism Service battalions. Kadhimi bolstered this show-of-force by conducting a rare tour of the capital, visiting both sides of the city and meeting with citizens and security forces. Kadhimi issued a carefully worded warning directed towards unnamed threat actors. “We have worked steadily to restore the confidence of the people, security services, and the army in the state, which has been shaken by the activities of outlaws,” he tweeted. “We called for calm to prevent our country from being plunged into another absurd adventure, but we are ready for a decisive confrontation if necessary.”

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi tours security forces in the Iraqi capital following threats by a militia group (Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office)

Reports cited negations between AAH and Iraqi National Security Adviser, Qassem al-Araji, as well as mediation efforts between different Shia actors. According to a purported order from the Ministry of the Interior, an agreement was made between AAH and the Counter-Terrorism Service to transfer the detainee to the Popular Mobilization Committee security directorate. The Ministry of Interior subsequently issued a statement categorically denying the veracity of the transfer order, describing it as a forgery. Reports citing a release or transfer were plausible but not confidently confirmed accordingly. While the full scope of mediation efforts remains unclear, tensions subsided overnight, with both sides standing down. Counter-Terrorism Service units were withdrawn, but previously enacted heightened security measures associated with the ongoing leadup to the 3 January anniversary remain in effect.

AAH attempts to save face from security responses:
The propaganda battle intensified as militant tensions subsided on the night of 25 December. Hours after the heavy ISF deployments, AAH leader Qais al-Khazaali announced that the situation involving the arrest of the militia member will be resolved through “reason and wisdom”. AAH deputy leader Naim al-Aboudi denounced what were described as accusations based on “anonymous video clips,” adding that AAH intends to support the rule of law. AAH political bureau member Mahmoud al-Rubaie also denied the reports citing the mobilization of AAH forces in the capital. He claimed associated reporting was “either old videos or people we do not even know.” AAH counterpart Jawad al-Talibawi stressed that any other attempt to offend the PMF and the resistance factions is “definitely an American attempt and will definitely fail.”

Additional efforts to save face subsequently materialized in the form of a demonstration in central Baghdad. At around noon on 26 December, a number of PMF members and supporters assembled at Tahrir Square. According to social media sources, AAH members conducted what was described as a victory parade for their latest “victory over the state”. Assemblies of women and children were also observed. Participants marked the approaching 3 January anniversary of the assassination of former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and former Popular Mobilization Committee deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The event peacefully concluded at around 15:30 without incident amongst heightened security measures. This demonstration serves as a prelude for a large-scale demonstration scheduled to take place in central Baghdad on 3 January itself.

PMF demonstration at Tahrir Square, 26 Dec. 2020

GoI exploitation of purported divisions between Iranian-backed groups:
The 25 December tensions in Baghdad were also connected to conjecture that the 20 December rocket attack and other recent activity involving Iranian-backed groups was not sanctioned by Iran. To recall, this included allegations that AAH broke the ceasefire by supporting the 17 November rocket attack against the US Embassy and subsequent activity. On 23 December, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Brig. Gen. Esmayeel Qa’ani reportedly conducted a visit to Iraq in response to the 20 December attack. Unofficial reports asserted that Qaani denied any involvement in the rocket attacks amongst other efforts to distance Iranian-backed groups from the incident.

Later on 26 December, Iraqi front member Atheel Al-Nujaifi asserted that the Quds Force commander gave Iraq the green light to target the “undisciplined militias” who “attacked US interests in Iraq at a time Iran is avoiding any armed conflict with the United States,” considering this order “an opportunity for the state of Iraq.” The theory that recent attacks against US interests reflected the unauthorized actions of particularly militant rogue militias cannot be discounted amongst a plethora of reporting abnormalities. That said, it is also suspected that these reporting characteristics instead involve deceptive intent to distance Iran and its proxies from an escalating series of attacks against US interests in the leadup to the 3 January anniversary.

For further discussion and analysis, please see the full report.

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