US sanctions Iran-backed militia leaders for killing Iraqi demonstrators

The US announced on Friday that it was imposing sanctions on three militia leaders for their role in killing protestors in Iraq’s protracted demonstrations, now in their third month.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – The US announced on Friday that it was imposing sanctions on three militia leaders for their role in killing protestors in Iraq’s protracted demonstrations, now in their third month.

The three sanctioned figures are all supported by Tehran. Although the protestors are predominantly Shi’ites, the militia leaders are Shi’ites too. Through most of its history—since its establishment in 1921, under British mandate, until the US-led war in 2003—Sunnis have ruled Iraq, and it is a new phenomenon for a Shi’ite regime to repress Shi’ites.

Indeed, on Friday, at least 12 protesters in Baghdad, including two policemen, were killed, and over 40 were wounded, after gunmen suddenly appeared in two vehicles and opened fire, before quickly disappearing. It is impossible to know who the gunmen were, but suspicion falls on Iranian-backed militias.

The US also announced on Friday that it was sanctioning a Sunni politician and businessman, Khamis Farhan al-Khanjar al-Issawi, for “engaging in widespread corruption at the expense of the Iraqi people.”

As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted, the designations come on the eve of International Anticorruption Day, December 9, and International Human Rights Day, December 10.

“The United States is doing its part to advance those very same values,” Pompeo said, and “hold to account those who would undermine them through human rights abuses or acts of corruption.” 

Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Leaders and PMF Security Chief  

The three sanctioned militia leaders include two brothers: Qais and Laith al-Khazali. Qais is the head of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Laith is a senior figure in AAH.

The third militia figure was identified by US officials as Husayn Falih Aziz al-Lami, but is probably better known as Abu Zainab al-Lami. Al-Lami heads the Central Security Directorate of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and is said to be close to Qasim Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC.)

AAH receives some $2 million in money and weapons from Iran monthly, according to The New York Times. It has been involved in shooting protestors in the current demonstrations, US officials said, but the violence of the al-Khazali brothers—and their association with Iran—goes back over a decade, to the US-led war in Iraq.

In 2007, they played “leading roles” in the assault on the headquarters of the Karbala provincial government, in which five US soldiers were killed (the attack was directed by Iran, and on Thursday the US announced a $15 million reward for information on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force commander, Abdul Reza Shahlai, responsible for planning the assault.) 

Read More: US offers $15 million for info on IRGC planner of 2007 Karbala attacks, as concerns rise about Iranian actions 

In 2015, AAH was “involved in widespread forced disappearances,” which “[targeted] Sunni Iraqis with impunity,” the US said, explaining, “Laith al-Khazali controlled efforts to remove Sunnis from areas of Diyala Province, including killings to drive Sunnis from the area.”

Nonetheless, in the May 2018 elections, Qais al-Khazali won 15 seats in Iraq’s National Assembly. 

Qassim Soleimani in Baghdad 

In announcing the new sanctions, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Schenker, decried Iran’s influence in Iraq. In doing so, he echoed many of the protestors who blame Iran for Iraq’s political and economic woes.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi resigned a week ago in response to the protests, but no one has been selected to replace him. Yet, as Schenker noted, Qasim Soleimani—whom the US has designated a terrorist—“is in Baghdad, working this issue.”

“Foreign terrorist leaders, or military leaders, should not be meeting with Iraqi political leaders to determine the next premier of Iraq,” Schenker said.

Iraq is one of the world’s most corrupt countries, ranking 168 out of 180 on Transparency International’s list. Schenker expressed sympathy with the protestors, explaining, “Iraqis are fed up with economic stagnation, endemic corruption, and mismanagement.”

But without a commitment among Iraq’s political leaders to better governance, “it makes little difference who they designate as prime minister,” Schenker stated, as he also stressed the need for Iraqi politicians “to put Iraqi interests first.”

Schenker promised “further designations in the future,” suggesting Friday’s announcement was the start of a more sustained US effort to improve Iraq’s government.

He emphasized America’s good-will. “We are the largest donor of humanitarian, stabilization, demining, and security assistance to Iraq,” he said. “We want to maintain and expand that role to include helping with economic reform to create jobs for Iraqis and Americans alike,” but “we need to see Iraqi leaders” being “equally committed to that partnership.”Schenker confirmed earlier reports that Iran seemed increasingly engaged in hostilities against the US and its allies, attributing that to the US “maximum pressure campaign working over the months.”

“There is a trajectory,” he said, in which the Iranians began by increasing “the operational tempo of the Houthis [in Yemen] against the Saudis; then raised the rhetoric and the temperature in Iraq against US personnel;” then “scuttling boats in Fujairah; then kidnapping boats; then shooting down US drones in international airspace, and most recently Abqaiq, targeting directly with their own missiles Saudi oil facilities.”

CNN reported on Tuesday that “there is fresh intelligence of a potential Iranian threat against US forces and interests in the Middle East,” but provided no details.

On Thursday, two mortars landed in Balad Air Base in Salahadin province, some 64 kilometers north of Baghdad. US troops are stationed at the base, but the mortars caused no casualties or serious damage.

Asked who he thought was responsible, Schenker noted the investigation is ongoing, but “if past is prologue, I’d say there’s a good chance it was Iran.”