Iraqi security forces raid Iran-backed militia headquarters

The raid was the first sign that the government of Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, intends to make good on pledges to take tough action against militia groups that have targeted US installations. (File/AFP)
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Updated 27 June 2020

Iraqi security forces raid Iran-backed militia headquarters

  • The raid was the most brazen action by Iraqi forces against a major Iran-backed militia group in years

BAGHDAD: Iraqi security forces raided a headquarters belonging to a powerful Iran-backed militia in southern Baghdad late on Thursday and detained more than a dozen members of the group, government officials and paramilitary sources said.
The raid was the most brazen action by Iraqi forces against a major Iran-backed militia group in years and targeted the Kataib Hezbollah faction, which US officials have accused of firing rockets at bases hosting US troops and other facilities in Iraq.
Iraqi government officials and paramilitary sources then gave contradicting versions of what followed.
The paramilitary sources and one government official said those detained were transferred shortly afterwards to the security branch of Iraq’s paramilitary umbrella grouping, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
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 PMF official said it was 19. A government official said it was 23.
The raid was the first sign that the government of Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, intends to make good on pledges to take tough action against militia groups that have targeted US installations.
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.
But the incident also highlighted how difficult it could be to take on the militias. A senior PMF official said after some negotiation, those detained were handed over to paramilitary security forces.
The PMF is an Iraqi state institution. It contains factions loyal to Iran and others that are not, but has been dominated by Iran-aligned militias.
One government official told Reuters three commanders of Kataib Hezbollah had been detained during the raid, carried out by Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service. One of those commanders was an Iranian, he said.
A second PMF official said no commanders of Kataib Hezbollah were detained.
A spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq and Iraqi paramilitary sources denied any of those detained had been handed over to the US military, after a government official said three had been.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran especially on Iraqi soil have been high for at least a year.
It nearly spilled into regional conflict in January after the United States killed Iran’s military mastermind Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in a drone strike at Baghdad airport.
Both Tehran and Washington supported Kadhimi in becoming prime minister in May.


American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

Updated 2 min 38 sec ago

American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

  • Chris Olson: It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange – a lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home
  • Olson: I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward

One of the aims of the U20 — the urban track of the G20 organization that formally opens on Thursday in Riyadh — is to bring together cities of diverse backgrounds and cultures to explore common interests and challenges, rather than focusing on what makes them different.

In the case of Riyadh and Houston, Texas, that process of familiarization has been underway for decades.

Christopher Olson, director of international affairs and global trade at the offices of the city of Houston, told Arab News: “There has been a long-standing and strong relationship between Houston and Riyadh, indeed the whole of Saudi Arabia, for a very long time.”

Olson reports to the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, but for the past year or so has been the US “sherpa” at the G20, under Saudi presidency this year.

The Riyadh-Houston affinity was based, naturally, on the oil and gas industry, with both cities owing much of their economic dynamism and growth to the energy business. Saudis and Texans share a unique heritage as pioneers of the crude business, and those links have grown and diversified over the decades.

“It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange. A lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home,” Olson said.

Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s energy giant, has a big facility in the Texan city, and owns the Motiva refinery complex a short distance away on the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Until the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit, Saudis would travel in droves each year to the CERAWeek energy forum in Houston, the “oil man’s Davos,” not least to keep tabs on what their rivals were doing in the Texas shale industry.

Saudis also attend Texas universities in big numbers, and the Texas Medical Center — which Olson pointed out was the biggest medical facility in the world — treats Saudi patients in increasing numbers.

Oil and medicine came together during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Aramco gifted medical supplies and equipment to Houston. “We were incredibly fortunate in that. We got almost 1 million masks from benefactors, and Aramco made up a big proportion of that. It really was incredibly generous,” Olson added.

The virus outbreak led to the cancellation of CERAWeek this year, but the city hoped organizers would add some physical element to the planned virtual event in 2021, Olson said.

The city managed to avoid most of the early virulence of the pandemic that hit US cities such as New York and Los Angeles, but relaxed early restrictions, along with several American cities, in May, and suffered a resulting spike in infections, the official added. “Now the numbers are moving in the right direction — downwards. But as schools and economic activity restarts, there is the potential for a second wave.”

One of the major themes of the U20 is how big urban centers, such as Houston and Riyadh, can overcome the health and economic ravages of the pandemic. Some experts have forecast mass migration from big cities, partly to avoid infection, but also as working and social habits adapt to whatever post-pandemic “normality” emerges. There has even been talk of “the end of urbanization.”

Olson said: “We’re all going to have to adapt. For example, are we as cities still going to invest in big infrastructure projects to encourage mass transit systems? That is the thing to do from a sustainability viewpoint, but it creates a health challenge.”

The working environment also faces enforced change. “There may have been a reticence in the past about tele-meetings, but now they are ubiquitous. It’s going to fundamentally change the way business is conducted.”

Increased dependence on technology brings other challenges, which the U20 will also consider. The digital divide between those who have access to efficient communications, especially in education, has been brought into sharp relief during the global health crisis, and even impacted on affluent urban hubs such as Houston.

“But I believe the city as a concept will endure. We are urban and social animals. People will adapt, but the general concept of the urban environment will not change,” Olson added.

He said it had been “fantastic” working with his counterparts at the U20 in Saudi Arabia.

“I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward. The U20 is still only in its third year, but Riyadh has solidified it as an engagement group, and created a format for an exchange of thought and ideas. This will help us come up with evidence-based proposals and solutions,” he added.

The climax of the U20 comes on Friday, when mayors from all the big cities come together virtually to approve a 27-point communique for delivery to the G20 leadership. That statement is still under wraps, but Olson said it was a “well-crafted” document that reflected the good relationships that had developed between the sherpas over the past year.

He would like to see the U20 track elevated within G20 proceedings in the future, especially in the way it addresses issues of more concern to younger people, and believes that Saudi Arabia, with its very young demographic, will assist that elevation process.

“The amazing work of Riyadh has built on what was achieved in Tokyo and Buenos Aires and has carried it forward.

“It’s the cities of the world that face the biggest challenges — such as climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. But the cities are also coming up with the solutions. That is where the opportunity lies,” Olson said.