U.S. Sanctions Kata’ib Hizbollah, Fly Baghdad for IRGC ties, as Debate over U.S. Policy Grows

They are all sanctioned for their ties to and support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force.
The logo of the United States Department of the Treasury. (Photo: US Treasury)
The logo of the United States Department of the Treasury. (Photo: US Treasury)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – On Monday, the Biden administration announced sanctions on four Iraqis, three of them leaders of the Iraqi militia, Kata’ib Hizbollah, as well as two Iraqi companies, one being the airline, Fly Baghdad. 

They are all sanctioned for their ties to and support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF).

The measure comes as Iran, as well as its proxies, have intensified their attacks on U.S. targets since Oct. 7, when Hamas launched its bloody assault on Israel, triggering the conflict that continues to this day.

Last month, Pentagon Press Secretary, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, explained to journalists that “Iranian proxy groups” in Iraq and Syria “are being encouraged by Iran to, again, exploit this situation to their advantage in order to meet the strategic game of expelling U.S. forces from that region.” 

Read More: Attack carried out on Al-Asad Airbase: Pentagon official

Internal Biden Administration Debate

This is a difficult challenge for the Biden administration, and the continuing attacks have triggered an internal debate about the efficacy of their current policy of restraint. They are aware of the problem that if U,S, servicemen are killed in an attack, that will, almost certainly, force them to take a more assertive stance that aims at actually preventing further strikes—i.e., deterrence—rather than keeping such strikes limited—what Seth Cropsey, head of the Yorktown Institute, has derisively called “escalation management.”

In a report on Sunday, The New York Times described the discussion within the administration. “Biden administration officials have regularly debated the proper strategy,” it said.

“They do not want to let” the attacks “go without a response, but do not want to go so far that the conflict would escalate into a full-fledged war, particularly by striking Iran directly,” the Times continued.

“They privately say they may have no choice, however, if American troops are killed,” it added. “That is a red line that has not been crossed, but if the Iranian-backed militias ever have a day of better aim or better luck, it easily could be.”

Ironically, that is precisely what Amb. John Bolton, National Security Adviser under Donald Trump, and U.N. Ambassador under George W. Bush, told Kurdistan 24 earlier this month, as he warned that the administration had failed to establish deterrence vis-a-vis Iran. 

“Its response to the Iranian-backed attacks has been weak,” our summary of the criticism Bolton expressed in his televised interview, continued. “So [the attacks] will, most likely, continue, even as one incident or another may result in large-scale U.S. casualties and force the administration to respond in a way that it is unwilling to do now, and from a less advantageous position.”

New Sanctions on pro-Iranian Elements in Iraq

The sanctions announced on Monday fit into the framework described by The New York Times. They are measures aimed at doing something about the continued strikes by Iran and its proxies, but they are very far from any measure that might trigger a major Iranian response.

Already in July 2009, under the Obama administration, the U.S. designated the Iraqi militia, Kata’ib Hizbollah, as a terrorist group. The new sanctions involve three of its leaders. 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last month named Kata’ib Hizbollah, along with Harakat al-Nujaba, as the two Iraqi militias most active in targeting U.S. forces in Iraq. Subsequently, the U.S. responded to attacks on three sites in Iraq hosting its forces, including Erbil Airport, with strikes on Kata’ib Hizbollah targets.

Read More: US attacks militias in Iraq, retaliating for earlier strikes, including at Erbil Airport

The three newly-sanctioned Kata’ib Hizbollah leaders include Hossein Moanes al-Ibudi, head of the group’s political party, Harakat Hoquq (Movement of Rights.) Previously, Ibudi was the group’s “chief of government relations,” a Treasury Department statement said.

“In that capacity, he was involved” with the terrorist group’s “plans for gathering intelligence on, kidnapping, or even assassinating Iraqis identified as working with the United States as well as planning terrorist attacks on civilian targets with the help of the IRGC-QF,” it said.

Riyad Ali Hussein al-Azzawi is the second Kata’ib Hizbollah figure sanctioned on Monday. Azzawi is an engineer for the Popular Mobilization Committee, with a specialization in UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), the Treasury statement explained. 

“Azzawi’s fingerprints were found on an Iranian missile that was launched in the vicinity of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2021,” the statement revealed.

The third sanctioned individual is Awqad Muhsin Faraj al-Hamidawi. He is the younger brother of the head of Kata’ib Hizbollah, Ahmad al-Hamidawi, who was sanctioned already in February 2020. 

The younger Hamidawi directs Kata’ib Hizbollah’s “businesses and aspects of [its] financial portfolio,” the Treasury Department statement explained. 

“He raises funds” for the group “through commercial businesses, manages [its] money laundering operations, and is involved in [its] cross-border smuggling activities,” the statement continued.

Azzawi runs an Iraqi company, Al-Massal Land Travel and Tourism, which was also sanctioned. Kata’ib Hizbollah uses the company “to generate revenue and launder money,” as well as to “evade taxes on large quantities of illegal imports,” the Treasury statement explained, and “illegally confiscate land and other physical property from Iraqis” for its own use.

Fly Baghdad is the other Iraqi company that the U.S. sanctioned on Monday. “For several years, Iraqi airline, Fly Baghdad, has supported the operations of the IRGC-QF and its proxies by delivering materiel and personnel throughout the region,” the Treasury Department’s statement said. 

The Fly Baghdad flights were to Syria and Lebanon and were used “to transport bags of U.S. currency and U.S.-made weapons obtained from battlefield collection [in] Iraq to Lebanon.”

The statement also explained how Iraqi militiamen were moved to Lebanon to support Hizbollah’s attacks against Israel, soon after the current crisis began.

Kata’ib Hizbollah “sent fighters from Iraq to Lebanon on flights operated by Fly Baghdad and U.S.-designated Al-Nasr Wings to attend special operations training by Hizbollah in October 2023,” following Hamas’s assault on Israel, it said.

They included fighters from Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, which has been involved since Oct. 7 in attacking Israel from Lebanon.

The head of Fly Baghdad, Basheer Abdulkadhim Alwan al-Shabbani, was also sanctioned, along with two aircraft belonging to the company.