Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). (Reuters)

By Track Persia

July 22, 2019

A US Treasury statement has said sanctions were being imposed on the four Iraqi militia leaders due to suspicion of human rights abuses and corruption. Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday that the United States was imposing sanctions on the leaders of two Iranian-linked militia groups in Iraq.

“Let me be clear, the United States will not stand idly while Iranian-backed militias spread terror,” Pence told a high-level meeting on religious freedom, without naming the individuals targeted.

Further sanctions were imposed on five people and seven entities in connection to Iran’s nuclear program and non-proliferation matters, the Treasury Department said on its website on Thursday.

They are the first punitive steps by Washington since Tehran announced earlier this month it would increase its levels of enriched uranium that can be used for bomb fuel.

Tehran announced on July 1 that it had amassed more low-enriched uranium than permitted under its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, marking its first major step beyond the terms of the pact since the United States withdrew more than a year ago.

“Treasury is taking action to shut down an Iranian nuclear procurement network that leverages Chinese- and Belgium-based front companies to acquire critical nuclear materials and benefit the regime’s malign ambitions,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “Iran cannot claim benign intent on the world stage while it purchases and stockpiled products for centrifuges,” he added.

The US-led invasion of Iraq led to the breakdown of the Iraqi state and the collapse of its institutions. This, in turn, encouraged the emergence of armed actors that acquire a share of the post-invasion Iraqi state, most notably, Shiite militias and paramilitaries allied with Iran.

These militias have become powerful vis-à-vis Iraqi state apparatus including the Iraqi security which has been weakened by the invasion. When fighters of the Islamic State took over large swaths of Iraq’s lands in the north and west in June 2014, the Iranian-backed militias united with other Shiite groups heeded to a jihad fatwa against the militants of the Islamic State (IS) by the top Shiite cleric in Iraq and the world Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. All these fighters united under the umbrella the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

However, following the defeat of IS, the militias within PMF have been seeking a share of authority and legitimacy, operating outside the direct command of the central government. More recently, these militias have taken control of government institutions, including those in the predominately Sunni areas that have been liberated from the IS such as Mosul. They are encroaching into civilian life in the absence of effective governance and generating revenues from state and non-state sources in exchange for a promise of protection or services.

Additionally, many members of these militants have gained seats in the Iraqi parliament following their participation in the last general elections in May 2018. This allows them to position themselves to be part of any political settlement, with the intention of strengthening their presence after the defeat of IS.

For instance, Qais al-Khazali, the commander of Iran-backed militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) poses in public as an Iraqi politician who understands and defends the national interest. However, he has been accused of serving the interests of the Iranian regime and being behind a violent sectarian agenda against Sunnis and Iraqi minorities. Al-Khazali is one of the leading preachers of hate in Iraq and the wider region. He is also considered a loyal soldier of Iran’s Shiite theocracy. As a follower of Iran’s Wilayat Al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) political system, the AAH has participated in the Syrian civil war as Iran’s foreign legion alongside Al-Nujaba Shiite militias and other armed groups.

AAH includes a large number of fighters trained by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Lebanese Hezbollah. The number of AAH militants is estimated at about 10,000. This militia was suspected of being behind the attack on Musab bin Umair mosque in Diyala on August 22, 2014, that killed 73 Sunnis during Friday prayers.

Such attacks against Sunnis in Iraq are consistent with a pattern of attacks that Human Rights Watch has documented, including kidnappings and summary executions, by AAH militia, the Badr Brigades and Kata’ib Hezbollah in Baghdad, Diyala and Babel provinces.

The Wall Street Journal reported details of the investigations into the Iranian role in supporting terrorist militias in Iraq. Scrutiny of the relations between Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shiite cleric, politician and militia leader, and Tehran revealed a desire by Al-Sadr to control the flow of Iranian money to political groups in Iraq.

Operating from behind a mask of political respectability — the AAH won 15 seats in parliament in the May 2018 elections as Al-Sadiqoun bloc — Al-Khazali is seen by many in Iraq as being well placed to bolster AAH recruitment, training and expansion.

US officials believe Al-Khazali’s participation in the elections was to empower the militia, following the model used by Hassan Nasrallah for Hezbollah to establish Iran’s dominance in Lebanon. A senior US official has said that of its 15 seats, only two were won fairly and the rest gained by corruption.

The US is suspected of being behind targeting a base belonging to another Iran-linked militia in northern Iraq on Friday that killed at least one person according to the Iraqi army and paramilitary sources. A security source said two explosions hit the base, one targeting an ammunition depot belonging to an Iranian-backed group. The incident took place amid heightened tension between the US and Iran.

Iraq is seen as a potential arena for any violent regional confrontation between the two foes because of the presence of Iran-backed Shiite Muslim paramilitary groups operating in close proximity to bases hosting US forces. Several Iraqi bases hosting US forces were hit by a number of rockets a few weeks ago suspected to be carried out by these Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq in which no one was hurt. Washington is pressing Iraq’s government to rein in Iran-backed paramilitary groups which it says pose a threat to US interests in Iraq.

Iran has also been blamed for attacks on several oil tankers in the Gulf and Tehran denies any involvement. More recently Iran seized two British-flagged ships in international water in the Strait of Hormuz by its IRGC forces, prompting condemnations from the US and European allies.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.