Iraq’s new prime minister has promoted a general who played a major role in crushing ISIS and who is also widely seen as a counterweight to Iranian influence.
Lt. Gen. Abdul Wahab al-Saadi has been named commander of Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, which took heavy casualties during the fight for Mosul, according to the Associated Press. Al-Saadi previously served as deputy commander for the counterterrorism force, which was trained and equipped by the U.S. military.
The Counter-Terrorism Service is considered the best disciplined and least sectarian element of Iraq’s military and police force. As such, it is a bulwark against Iran, which has direct or indirect control over thousands of Shiite fighters in the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Despite his popularity among Iraqis, al-Saadi was demoted in September by former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. The move was interpreted inside Iraq as an attempt by Iran to bolster its proxies in Iraqi’s security forces, Mustafa Saadoun of AI Monitor reported in October.
Al-Saadi’s ouster prompted protests in Iraq. On Saturday, the country’s new U.S.-backed Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced that al-Saadi would lead the Counter-Terrorism Service.
Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus called al-Saadi’s promotion as commander of the Counter-Terrorism Service a “very heartening development” amid renewed attacks by ISIS in Iraq.
“Lt Gen Abdul Wahab al-Saadi demonstrated courageous and effective leadership of Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism forces in a number of key battles during the elimination of the ISIS caliphate in Iraq,” said Petraeus, who led U.S. troops in Iraq during the surge. “But, it is clear that ISIS remnants have been able to re-organize into insurgent and terrorist cells and have conducted a number of terrorist attacks against Iraqi forces in recent weeks, their first real Ramadan offensive in several years. And Lt Gen Wahab al-Saadi’s return to the CTS will reinvigorate the Iraqi effort to deal with the resurgence of ISIS activity.”
A coalition military official told Task & Purpose on Sunday that al-Saadi is a strong partner in fighting ISIS and it will be very easy to work with him again to advise Iraqi forces and plan operations.
The Counter-Terrorism Service has an important role to play in the continued fight against ISIS, said retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, former head of U.S. Central Command.
“The CTS was the backbone of the fight against ISIS (and AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] before that),” Votel told Task & Purpose on Sunday. “I would believe they are continuing to play an important role suppressing remnants of ISIS. This is the purpose for which the CTS was formed and for which they performed so well. Even when the IA [Iraqi army] collapsed in 2014 – the CTS kept it together”
Beyond the fight against ISIS, Al-Saadi’s promotion marks a win for the United States in its proxy war against Iran that is playing out in Iraq.
The United States and Iran have come close to open war in January after a U.S. airstrike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Iran retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq.
Tensions rose again in March after two U.S. service members were killed in a rocket attack on Camp Taji, Iraq, which the U.S. government blamed on Iranian proxy Kata'ib Hezbollah. The U.S. military launched airstrikes on the group afterward, but that did not stop another rocket attack on Camp Taji that wounded three more service members.
Most recently, President Donald Trump tweeted that he had given the Navy permission to “shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats” after Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy boats made dangerous maneuvers near Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the Persian Gulf.