BAGHDAD -- Iraqi security forces late Thursday arrested 14 men suspected of a spate of rocket attacks against the U.S. presence in Iraq, the Iraqi military said Friday -- the strongest action to date by the new government in Baghdad against perpetrators suspected of ties to Iran.
The arrests marked a bold move by the government to crack down on groups that have long been a source of tension for U.S.-Iraq relations. Two senior Iraqi officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the arrested men had ties to an Iran-backed militia group.
Rockets have struck close to U.S. installations in the Green Zone and an Iraqi army base near the airport in the capital since Baghdad embarked on strategic talks with Washington on June 11.
The U.S. has blamed Iran-backed militia group Kataib Hezbollah for orchestrating attacks against its embassy and American troops on Iraqi bases, and criticized the Iraqi government for not identifying and arresting the culprits.
The recent attacks posed a challenge for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was sworn in last month. His administration pledged to crack down on the groups behind the attacks at the start of strategic talks, according to senior U.S. officials.
The raid carried out by Iraq's elite counterterrorism service in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood was a step toward this promise. A military statement after the arrests did not explicitly state the 14 men arrested had militia ties. It said a special investigative committee was formed to follow up on the case.
It was unclear who was holding the men, with one Iraqi official saying it was the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of paramilitary groups, while another said they were being held by the Interior Ministry.
"It looks like Mustafa al-Kadhimi is continuing to try and put actions to words," said Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow at Chatham House.
Officials and experts speculated whether the move was part of a broader negotiation strategy with the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of Iraqi paramilitary groups, some of which are Iran-backed. Al-Kadhimi, who was the head of Iraq's intelligence before being named the prime minister, had a meeting with leaders of the umbrella group Thursday.
There was no immediate comment from Kataib Hezbollah.
The next test for al-Kadhimi rests on the ability of the courts to prosecute the men. Mansour's research suggests Kataib Hezbollah wields some influence over Iraq's judiciary through key political officials. "This will be difficult," he said.