Iraqi forces in Basra have dismantled four "death squads" backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) since mid-February, and operations are ongoing to take down more such cells, informed sources told Al-Mashareq.
The Iraqi government in mid-February announced the arrest of four militants that formed the first such "death squad".
Initial investigations revealed that those militants were directly linked to the pro-Iran militia Kataib Hizbullah, which operates under the cover of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
The detainees, members of a 16-member death squad, confessed that over the past year, they have carried out assassinations of activists and journalists known for opposing Iranian influence, said Ismail Musabbah al-Waeli, the brother of Mohammed al-Waeli, the former governor of Basra who was assassinated by Kataib Hizbullah in 2012.
Those assassinated by the group include two journalists -- Ahmed Abdul-Samad and Safaa Ghali -- activists Mojtaba Ahmed al-Skini and Jinan Madhi al-Shahmani, and the director of a governmental unit for fighting transgressions in Basra, Makki al-Tamimi.
The detainees also confessed to being responsible for attacks on Iraqi officers, including the attempted assassination of Lt. Col. Muthanna Adnan Abdul Karim and the bombing of the home of Lt. Col. Mustafa Abbas Mohsen, both of the Basra Intelligence Directorate, said al-Waeli.
They said they received their orders from Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of Iran's Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the former deputy chief of the PMC. Both were killed in a US air strike in early 2020.
Current militia leaders such as Qais al-Khazaali, the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq; Abu Walaa al-Walai, the leader of Sayyed al-Shuhada Battalions; and Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organisation, among others, also gave the group orders, according to the suspects.
The confessions enabled security and intelligence forces to dismantle three other Iran-backed "death squads" in Basra linked to the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Badr Organisation and Harakat al-Nujaba militia groups, said al-Waeli.
Authorities have arrested 15 members of those cells so far and are pursuing dozens more.
A number of the wanted fugitives, including militia leaders Ahmed Tawisa and Qusay Awwad, were smuggled out of Basra and are being sheltered in secret locations in Jurf al-Sakhr, south of Baghdad, which is the main stronghold of Iranian proxies, he said.
Others, including Hassan Kazem al-Rashed, a prominent leader in the Badr Organisation and members of his team who stalked and threatened activists, managed to flee either to Iran by land or to an unknown destination, he added.
Al-Waeli praised the Iraqi Intelligence Service for its efforts against the "death squads", adding that authorities "were able to gather all the criminal evidence needed to prosecute them and record their preliminary and legal confessions".
Both Iran and the militias attempted to have the detainees freed, he said, adding that the accused are currently in the Iraqi judiciary's custody.
A military parade organised by the Kataib Hizbullah-linked Rubu Allah in central Baghdad on March 25 was part of the militia's efforts to pressure the government to stop pursuing its members and leaders, al-Waeli said.
Participants held posters of Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi in which they threatened him with acts of violence.
Rubu Allah is one of the most active new militias on social media, with accounts on Facebook and Telegram through which it boasts of its activities.
Security forces are determined to arrest all the fugitive suspects and dismantle other active death squads, al-Waeli said.
Threat to Iraq
The IRGC's sponsorship of "death squads" dates back to 2006, the year it began establishing its militias in Iraq, military and strategy analyst Hatem al-Falahi said.
Kataib Hizbullah, one of the most vicious of such militias, has been behind the assassination of academic, political and religious figures.
Members of the militia arrested in mid-February confessed to being behind the 2006 assassination of the imam of the Basra Grand Mosque, Yousef al-Hassan.
Such "death squads" were trained by Iran's IRGC to carry out specific tasks, the foremost of which include silencing anyone who voices opposition to Iran, al-Falahi said.
The targeted assassinations of those who reject Iran's hegemonic agenda is "an example of the magnitude of the threat these groups pose to the security and sovereignty of the country", he said.