Iraq’s removal of counterterrorism chief sparks controversy

Special Iraq’s removal of counterterrorism chief sparks controversy
Lt. Gen. Abdulwahab Al-Saadi was removed from his post and transferred to the Ministry of Defense without explanation on Friday. (AFP)
Updated 29 September 2019

Iraq’s removal of counterterrorism chief sparks controversy

Iraq’s removal of counterterrorism chief sparks controversy
  • US-Iran tug-of-war blamed for the removal

BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s sacking of the commander of the troops of the Counter Terrorism Squad (CTS) has angered Iraqis and increased their resentment against the government, local officials and analysts have told Arab News.

Lt. Gen. Abdulwahab Al-Saadi was removed from his post and transferred to the Ministry of Defense without explanation on Friday.

Saadi led liberation battles in Tikrit, Fallujah and Mosul after 2014 when Daesh militants seized most Sunni towns and cities in the western and northern parts of the country. He won the trust of the majority of Iraqis, especially Sunnis, who feared retaliation by Iraqi security forces and pro-Iran paramilitary groups fighting alongside the Iraqi army for staying in areas ruled by Daesh.

Saadi’s command of the attack forces and the high discipline of his fighters and those under his command bridged the gap between the residents of those areas and the Iraqi forces and greatly reduced causalities on both sides.

The treatment of Saadi has ignited social networking sites in the past three days, turning them into an arena for criticizing Abdul Mahdi and his government. As activists sought to organise large demonstrations to begin on Tuesday, hundreds of people from Mosul demanded the dedication of a statue of Saadi that they had erected during the past months to express their love and gratitude to the soldier.

The reasons for Saadi’s punishment have not been publicly revealed, but Abdul Mahdi, without naming Saadi, said in a televised interview with local Iraqi stations broadcast on Sunday that “(there are) officers (who) go to embassies. This is unacceptable and unreasonable.”

“The military establishment cannot be left to personal whims, whether it is the commander’s whims or any other figure.

“The officer does not choose his position, but (he) gets orders and executes them … Going to the media and social media is a big and unacceptable mistake,” he said, referring to Saadi who expressed his rejection of the orders and publicly said that he preferred to die than be frozen out.

While the majority of Iraqis consider that the freezing out of Saadi is intended to destroy the symbolism of senior military officers who led the war against Daesh over the past years, politicians and analysts believe that the removal of Saadi from the CTS is part of the US-Iranian conflict in Iraq, aimed at tightening the grip on military and security institutions.

“The CIA man in the Iraqi army overthrew the man of the frontlines and fighting against Daesh,” Azzat Al-Shabandar, a prominent Shiite politician, wrote on his Twitter account on Saturday.

“The defense minister has no powers, and the prime minister is a peaceful man and does not want to get into trouble,” Shabandar said.

Iraq has been the biggest battleground between Iran and the US since 2003. Both countries control dozens of armed factions and military and political leaders in Iraq who serve their agendas in the region.

The conflict between the two traditional enemies increased recently with the blowing-up by unknown drones of material belonging to Iranian-backed armed factions inside Iraq. Iran responded by conducting operations in the same way against US interests and allies in the region.

The CTS is one of the special combat units formed by the Americans in Iraq in 2007, with American training, equipment and partial funding. The CTS troops are an elite force in Iraq and have been commanded by Lt. Gen. Taleb Shaghati, who holds dual Iraqi and US citizenship and is known to be one of America’s men in Iraq.

Saadi was sacked from the command of the CTS forces and transferred to another location at the request of Shaghati, but the order was signed by Abdul Mahdi as commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces.

Several security officials and CTS fighters who spoke to Arab News said that disputes between the two men had peaked over the past two years because Saadi is seeking to be Shaghati’s successor. They said both men have corruption files on each other, and this is what prompted Shaghati to overthrow Saadi.

However talk behind the scenes and in private sessions revealed another possible motive.

“The Americans and Shaghati consider Saadi close to the pro-Iran armed factions and that he leaked a lot of information to the Iranians over the past years,” said an Iraqi adviser who is close to the US embassy in Baghdad.

“It is time to burn him (Saadi). This is part of the US pressure on the Iranians to keep their tools away from the counterterrorism apparatus.

“The amount of pressure that was placed on Abdul Mahdi, Barham (the president), and Shaghati to do this (sack Saadi) was terrible.”