Washington blacklists Iran-backed Iraqi militia leaders over protests

Iraqi Shiite Muslim clerics, supporters of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), demonstrate in the capital Baghdad's Tahrir Square on December 5, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 07 December 2019

Washington blacklists Iran-backed Iraqi militia leaders over protests

  • 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)

WASHINGTON: 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.
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 Daesh.
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. 

Egypt army drill ‘sends a message to Erdogan’

Updated 34 min 57 sec ago

Egypt army drill ‘sends a message to Erdogan’

  • Military exercise near Libyan border a ‘warning shot,’ experts say

CAIRO: A major Egyptian army exercise near the border with Libya is being viewed by military and strategic experts as a message of deterrence to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over his backing for the Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj and supported by militia groups.

The combat exercise, codenamed “Hasm 2020” (Firmness 2020), was carried out by Egypt’s Western Region units together with armed forces formations and special troops, including paratroops and SEAL teams.

The drills included strategic incursions by land forces and land-sea operations by troops in coastal areas of the Western Region near the border with Libya. Other exercises focused on the threat from mercenary or terror groups.

Air defense and artillery maneuvers were also carried out during the exercises, which lasted several days. 

African affairs and national security expert Gen. Mohammed Abdel-Wahed said the Hasm 2020 exercise “carries many internal and external messages of assurance to our brothers in Libya and deterrence to some regional parties.”

The drill “was a message of deterrence to anyone who thinks he can threaten Egyptian national security” and “a simulation of war,” he added.

According to an army statement, the drill’s main phase was attended by Egyptian Minister of Defense Mohamed Zaki, and included live artillery and weapons fire.

Strategic expert Gen. Samir Farag said: “What happened was not an ordinary drill because the forces attacked mercenaries. Our army always fights a regular army. What is different about this drill is training to combat mercenaries. One of the training tasks is to carry out attacks to eliminate mercenaries in cooperation with the air force.”

Farag said the drill “is a message that we will operate on the coasts if they are under threat.”

He said the Egyptian air force succeeded in providing air supplies, “meaning that we have forces capable of going anywhere.”

Farag said that the Western Region had been carefully selected as a location for the exercises.

“We closely monitor any drill carried out by any of our enemies,” he said, adding that Hasm 2020 had been studied and followed up by some countries in the region. 

Egyptian MP and journalist Mustafa Bakry said that “every Egyptian should be proud of their armed forces and their extensive preparation to counter any attack on Egypt or threaten its national security.”

Bakry said that Hasm 2020 sent “a clear message to anyone who attempts to threaten Egypt or its people.”

The Libyan cities of Sirte and Al-Jufra are a red line, he said, adding that “Egypt will never leave Libya and its brotherly people as an easy prey to the Turkish invader.”