US blacklists Iran-backed Iraqi militia leaders over protests

Washington is ramping up economic pressure to try to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Iraqi demonstrators
Iraqi demonstrators react as they look at a makeshift memorial with the personal belongings of those who were killed during anti-government protests at Tahrir Square in Baghdad [File:Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters]

The United States is preparing further sanctions over the killing of anti-government protesters in Iraq, a senior US Department of State official said on Friday.

“We’re not done. This is an ongoing process,” David Schenker, an assistant secretary at the US Department of State, told reporters, adding “We will be doing further designations in the future.”

Schenker did not provide further details.

On Friday, the US blacklisted three Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary leaders over their alleged role in killings of anti-government protesters in Iraq, the US Department of the Treasury said. These 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 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 Ahl al-Haq.

The US Treasury said in a statement that groups led by the three paramilitary leaders “opened fire on peaceful protests, killing dozens of innocent civilians”. Reuters reported last month that Lami, also known as Abu Zainab al-Lami, had directed fighters to open fire on protesters.

Iraqi paramilitary groups deny any role in the deaths of people 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.

The new sanctions also targeted Iraqi businessman Khamis al-Khanjar for alleged corruption, the statement said.

The sanctions freeze any US assets held by the leaders and prohibit Americans from doing business with them.

Senior US Treasury officials said the violent crackdown on protests was “causing even more political instability”.

“Iraqis have a fundamental right to a political process that is free from foreign malign influence and the corruption that both comes with it and fuels it,” one of the officials said.

They said the militia leaders had been involved in forced disappearances and abductions of activists.

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.

Iraqi protesters say the groups that dominate the government have kept people poor and jobless through corruption and failed to repair the country despite two years of relative calm after the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or the ISIL group).

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said last week that he would quit.

Asked about whether sanctions were designed to distance the militia leaders from the process of forming a new government, one of the US Treasury officials said: “The timing is quite deliberate … Iraq’s people are demanding a government that is free and clear of foreign interference.”

Tension between Washington and Tehran has ramped up as US President Donald Trump’s administration blames Iran for a series of attacks on oil infrastructure in the Gulf and on bases hosting US troops in Iraq. Iran denies involvement in the attacks.

Iraqi paramilitaries have in turn accused the US and Israel of attacks on their own installations.

Source: Reuters