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 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 Treasury Department 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, known also as Abu Zainab al-Lami, had directed fighters to open fire on protesters.
Today, we're taking action to honor the pledge to use our legal authorities to sanction corrupt Iraqis who are stealing the country's public wealth and targeting peaceful protesters. Political leaders and government officials must put #Iraq first.— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) December 6, 2019
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.
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 ISIS.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said last week 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 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 bases hosting US troops in Iraq. Iran denies involvement in the attacks.
Iraqi paramilitaries have in turn accused the United States and Israel of attacks on their own installations.