UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has drawn criticism for posing for a photograph during his visit to Iraq with two militia leaders wanted by the US for crimes against humanity.
Mr Guterres, who is visiting Iraq for the first time in six years, has been meeting various leaders, including Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani and Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein.
His visit comes as Iraq this month marks the 20th anniversary of the US- led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, as it faces continued economic, political, social and environmental crises.
“UNSG is ambushed. Another nightmarish optic coming out of Iraq,” said Michael Knights, Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.
“On his right (white turban) — US designated terrorist Qais Al Khazali, with a lot of US, UK and Iraqi blood on his hands. On his left, Rayan Al Kildani — US-designated human rights abuser,” Mr Knights said on Twitter.
A spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq said the photograph was taken after a dinner hosted by Mr Al Sudani.
“The photo was taken on his way out, after a dinner with government of Iraq coalition representatives, upon the invitation of the Prime Minister of Iraq, discussing the country’s future, the need to deliver and serve the needs and interests of Iraqis. There were more invitees at the dinner,” the spokesman told The National.
The militia leaders are also included in a group photo with Mr Guterres, UN envoy to Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and members of the Iraqi parliament's human rights council.
In 2020, the US designated Mr Al Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl Al Haq militia, and his brother Laith Al Khazali, another leader of the group, as global terrorists.
Asaib Ahl Al Haq, also known as the League of the Righteous, is backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, which has been similarly designated by the US as a foreign terrorist organisation. Washington believes the Iraqi militia is a proxy for Iran.
Mr Al Kildani is head of the Babylon Movement and leader of the 50th Brigade, a Christian faction in Hashed Al Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.
The PMF played a key role in helping the Iraqi army's defeat ISIS after the extremist group seized large areas of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
The US Treasury sanctioned Mr Al Kildani and his militia for human rights abuses and corruption.
In 2019, the 50th Brigade was accused of being the “primary impediment” to the return of internally displaced persons to the Nineveh Plains.
The Treasury accused the militia of systematically looting homes and selling confiscated farmland. The local population accuses the group of intimidation, extortion and harassment of women, the Treasury said.
“In May 2018, a video circulated among Iraqi human rights civil society organisations in which Al Kildani cut off the ear of a handcuffed detainee,” the Treasury said.
Joel Rayburn, the former US envoy to Syria, said Mr Guterres was “all smiles” when meeting the men in Baghdad.
“The UN Secretary General is all smiles meeting in Baghdad with the grinning terrorist Qais Khazali, who killed hundreds of US troops, murdered 1,000s of Iraqis, and routinely bombards US personnel in Iraq and Syria,” he said on Twitter.
Ruba Al Hassani, a postdoctoral research associate at Lancaster University, said the photograph would affect the UN's reputation in Iraq.
“A photo with militia leaders is not a good look for Guterres,” she said on Twitter.