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US sanctions leaders of Iran-linked militias accused of firing on Iraqi protesters

A man carries an injured protester during a violent anti-government demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq. November 29, 2019. Image: Ameer Al Mohammedaw/dpa

The U.S. government on Friday sanctioned four Iraqi nationals, three for alleged involvement in the violent repression of ongoing protests, and a fourth for corruption and bribery.

The U.S. sanctioned Qais al-Khazali, his brother Laith al-Khazali and Husayn Falih ‘Aziz al-Lami “for their involvement in serious human rights abuses in Iraq.”

The three are accused of holding leadership positions in Iran-backed militias which have opened fire on Iraqi protesters in recent months, killing scores of people, according to separate December 6 statements by the U.S. Treasury Department and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Laith and Qais al-Khazali are also accused of planning a 2007 raid in which members of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, an Iraqi Shia militia linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, kidnapped four U.S. soldiers from an Iraqi police headquarters before killing them. A fifth American soldier was killed inside the base.

Laith was imprisoned by the U.S. military in Iraq in 2007 for his alleged involvement in the raid but was released in 2009 in what Iraq’s chief negotiator at the time described as an attempt to gain the release of British hostages and bring the group militant back into the country’s legitimate political fold.

The U.S. accuses Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq of serious abuses in Iraq in recent years, including “widespread forced disappearances, abductions, killings, and torture [and] targeting Sunni Iraqis with impunity,” as well as using violence in 2015 to expel Sunnis from areas of Iraq’s Diyala province, the Treasury statement read.

The U.S. also alleges that Husayn Falih ‘Aziz al-Lami was “tasked by other senior militia commanders” with repressing Iraq’s recent wave of anti-government demonstrations, including by assassination of protest leaders.

The Treasury also sanctioned prominent Iraqi businessman Khamis Farhan al-Khanjar al-Issawi on allegations of corruption and bribing Iraqi officials.

Khanjar, who once advocated establishing an autonomous Sunni enclave in Iraq, has more recently been known to do business with organizations and individuals from a variety of sectarian and political backgrounds. It is not clear if he has direct ties with Iran-linked groups.

Friday’s sanctions were imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the U.S. to freeze the assets of individuals and organizations accused of human rights violations.

As many as 400 protesters have been killed, many by direct fire unleashed by security forces, since Iraq’s ongoing demonstrations against corruption, nepotism and poor public services began in October.