US targets Iran-backed paramilitary leaders over Iraq protests

Sanctions are the latest to target groups and individuals with close links to Tehran

Iraqi demonstrators shout slogans as thee take part in an anti-government demonstration in the capital Baghdad's Tahrir Square, on December 6, 2019.  Tahrir has become a melting pot of Iraqi society, occupied day and night by thousands of demonstrators angry with the political system in place since the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003 and Iran's role in propping it up. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
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The United States on Friday blacklisted three Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary leaders over their alleged role in killings of anti-government protesters in Iraq, the US Treasury Department said.

They are the latest US sanctions to target Iraqi individuals or armed groups with close links to Tehran as Washington ramps up economic pressure to try to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East.

The sanctions target three paramilitary leaders who led groups that "opened fire on peaceful protests, killing dozens of innocent civilians”, the US Treasury said.

The sanctions target Qais Al Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl Al Haq Iran-backed militia and his brother Laith Al Khazali, another leader of the group.

They also target Hussein Falih Al Lami, security chief for the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Iraq’s state umbrella group of paramilitary factions, which is dominated by groups backed by Iran, including Asaib.

"The Iraqi people want their country back. They are calling for genuine reform and accountability and for trustworthy leaders who will put Iraq's national interests first," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

Commenting on the targeting of the three Iraqi men, assistant secretary of state David Schenker said he expected more similar measures to come: “We are not done. This is an ongoing process.”

He added that more sanctions could target people inside the Iraqi government and on the outside.

Mr Schenker accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard leader Qassem Suleimani of intervening with the process to form the next Government.

“Qassem Suleimani is in Baghdad working this issue. It seems to us that foreign terrorist leaders, or military leaders, should not be meeting with Iraqi political leaders to determine the next premier of Iraq,” the US official said.

Mr Schenker hinted at Iran and its militias in carrying the missile attack at Al Balad airbase in Iraq on Thursday.

“The Iranians oftentimes, or have certainly in the past taken aggressive action when they feel under pressure,” he said.

The base hosts US forces and contractors.

The sanctions on the Khazali brothers were not seen as a surprise by Phillip Smyth, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy where he studies Iraq and Shia politics in the Levant.

"Qais Al Khazali is one of the biggest fish within the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) pond, his group has been extremely active when it comes to human rights violations, and deployed to Syria, hence designating him should have been a no-brainer," Mr Smyth told The National.

He said the designation is because his militia, Asaib Ahl Al Haq [AAH], “has been one of the core Iranian-controlled groups that has fired on protesters and targeted them around southern Iraq”.

Mr Smyth said the designation of his brother, Laith, is more intriguing.

“He [Laith] dropped off the scene with AAH when he was arrested over a decade ago,” he said.

“The fact that he's continuing efforts within AAH demonstrates how the groups founding leadership hasn't really shifted or changed.”

The third designation of Mr Al Lami is for his leadership role in the Mobilisation forces.

“He’s within the PMF and commanded the snipers from Saraya al-Khurasani per IRGC orders.”

Mr Smyth said that the sanctioning of “these leaders does effect how they can move money and influence things in Iraq and potentially abroad” but less so their political fortunes inside Baghdad.

James Jeffrey, US Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, arrived in Baghdad on Friday “for meetings with senior Iraqi officials to discuss our continued cooperation to ensure an enduring defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and our ongoing stabilisation efforts in areas liberated from ISIS”.

He will also visit the Kurdistan Region for meetings with regional leaders.

Iraqi paramilitary groups deny any role in the deaths of protesters, who have demonstrated against the government for more than two months. Security forces have killed more than 400 mostly unarmed protesters, police and medics say.

Iran-backed armed groups and politicians have dominated Iraq’s state institutions since a US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, plunged the country into years of civil war and destroyed infrastructure.