US blacklisting of Fayyadh puts Iraq in tough predicament
BAGHDAD – Iraqi officials are facing a tough predicament over how to deal with the head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), Falih al-Fayyadh, after the US Treasury Department placed him on a US sanctions list over his role in leading the PMF to crack down on demonstrators during the October 2019 protests.
The PMF is an official Iraqi institution that reports to the commander in chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces and is led by a chairman with the rank of minister, meaning the US government has taken the unprecedented step of punishing a member of the Iraqi government.
Government officials generally avoid dealing publicly with individuals sanctioned by the US Treasury Department, many of whom are leaders of armed Shia militias accused of human rights violations, but the matter differs with Fayyadh.
No Iraqi official wants to challenge the United States by dealing with figures it has sanctioned, meaning any contact between Fayyadh and senior Iraqi officials carries risks.
But on Sunday, Iraqi President Barham Salih became the first senior Iraqi official to meet with Fayyadh after the PMF leader was placed on the US sanctions list.
Salih is considered one of the US’s most prominent allies in Iraq, so he might have to explain to the Americans what led him to receive Fayyadh.
But Salih is also a friend of the Iranians, which perhaps explains why he took the risk of receiving Fayyadh.
During the meeting, Saleh and Fayyadh discussed “the security developments in the country and the need to strengthen the authority of the state and the security services as they seek to achieve security and stability” and “reaffirmed respect for the sovereignty of Iraq and refusal of interference in its internal affairs.”
Observers say that these general formulations have dual-purpose interpretations in order to satisfy both the Americans and Iranians.
The timing of Fayyadh’s visit to Saleh suggests a direct link between the meeting and the inclusion of the PMF’s head on the US sanctions list.
Observers do not rule out that Fayyadh tried to convey messages to the Americans through Salih.
Iraqi political sources said that Fayyadh suffered a real financial blow when the US Treasury placed him on its sanctions list, as he stands to directly lose money deposited in banks that are compliant with US policies.
The US administration did not indicate the size of Fayyadh’s personal wealth or the funds under his direct supervision, whether currently in the PMF, or when he previously served as national security adviser and with the National Security Agency.
These sensitive security positions allow their holders in some sectors to carry more influence at times than the minister in charge.
Among the forms of influence they carry is the ability to refer projects requiring tens of millions of dollars to be disbursed by the state.
Fayyadh said that the US sanctions are aimed at subjugating him and called US President Donald Trump a “criminal.”
An Iraqi political analyst described the US sanctions against Fayyadh as coming too late, as the PMF leader already has a presence within the Iraqi state due to the pressure exerted by Iranian hegemony, while in reality it is not considered part of the Iraqi state.
Speaking to The Arab Weekly, the analyst said, “The Popular Mobilisation Forces, led by Fayyad, are a burden on the state and exercise a de facto Iranian supervision over it, in addition to the fact that its multiple militias can do whatever they wish without referring to the prime minister, who is responsible for the PMF by virtue of his position as commander in chief of the armed forces.”
He added, “However, that responsibility – as the Iraqi president who received al-Fayyad knows – is of a formal nature, intended to protect Fayyad and other militia leaders from any possible US sanctions because of their absolute loyalty to Iran.”
He stressed that US sanctions put things in their proper perspective, as Fayyadh, from the point of view of international law, is outside the law since he leads a military entity that is not subject to the orders of the state and that has proven through practice is ready to eliminate all advocates for democracy, including peaceful protesters.
The analyst said that Fayyadh’s attempt to shield himself behind the Iraqi state is irrelevant, but could lead to the state itself being held accountable for protecting criminals, which Iraq cannot afford.