The US Congress finalised a draft bill late on Tuesday to counteract the growing influence of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.
The Preventing Destabilisation of Iraq Act of 2018 sets out to sanction "Iranian persons that threaten the peace or stability of Iraq or the government of Iraq".
Asaib Ahl Al Haq (AAH) and Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba militias, which are funded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), will be subjected to the sanctions and their funds frozen.
The two groups are part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), known in Arabic as Hashed Al Shaabi, that supported Iraqi government forces in the fight against ISIS. They were formally integrated into the security forces last year after the extremist militants were defeated.
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The bill requires the US president impose sanctions on "any foreign person that the president determines knowingly commits a significant act of violence that has the direct purpose or effect of threatening the peace or stability of Iraq" or its government, or who undermines Iraq's democracy or efforts to promote economic reconstruction, political reform and provide humanitarian assistance to its people.
AAH was founded in 2006, while Nujaba is a faction affiliated to both AAH and Kata'ib Hezbollah, an organisation established in 2013 and designated by the US as a terrorist group.
The chief of AAH, Qais Khazali, has pledged allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei but has denied receiving support from Iran.
Khazali is believed to be the prime planner behind the kidnapping and execution of four American soldiers in Karbala in 2007.
According to the bill, the Senate must also approve the draft before it is sent to the White House.
The bill also calls on the US president to identify individuals and groups in Iraq that should be included in the list of terrorist organisations to impose sanctions on them.
Among other things, the bill calls on the State Department to publish and maintain a list of armed groups receiving assistance from the IRGC.
It will pave the way for sanctions against all Afghan and Pakistani factions fighting in Syria alongside President Bashar Al Assad’s regime, which are partly funded by Iran.
Tehran touts itself as the leader of the so-called “Axis of Resistance”, supporting the Syrian government, Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite rebels in Yemen known as the Houthis.
The US bill comes as Khazali called on the Iraqi government to provide a more formal, long-term border protection role for the militias.
“Securing Iraq’s borders with Syria is among the most important duties of the Popular Mobilisation Forces right now,” he said on Saturday.
"The Daesh threat against Iraq won’t end as long as Syria is unstable. The PMF proved it is the military side most capable of dealing with Daesh ... maybe the armed forces can invest the PMF in duties that include border security,” Khazali said.
Some Iraqi MPs have called for disarming the PMF. They say the militias are responsible for widespread abuses including extrajudicial killings and displacing non-Shiite populations, and in effect report to Tehran, not the government in Baghdad. A former PMF commander, Hadi Al Amiri, heads the second-largest political group in parliament.
The PMF is estimated to have 150,000 members and includes groups which fought the US military after the 2003 invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, as well as individuals against whom Washington has imposed Iran-related sanctions.