US sanctions Iraqi militia leader over rights abuses
WASHINGTON--The United States on Friday imposed sanctions on an Iraqi militia leader and former national security adviser, connecting him to human rights abuses during the 2019 anti-government demonstrations in which hundreds of protesters were killed.
The US Treasury Department said in a statement it was blacklisting Falih al-Fayyadh, chairman of the Iraqi Hashed al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
The PMF, an umbrella group of mostly Shia militias, was formed in 2014 to counter the Islamic State (ISIS) group, following a fatwa from Iraq’s top Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani.
The growing influence of the Shia group over Iraqi state affairs — in particular its Iran-backed elements — has alarmed US officials.
On Friday, the Treasury accused Fayyadh of being part of a crisis cell formed in late 2019 to suppress protests with the support of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, which is blacklisted by the United States.
Washington said al-Fayyadh was the head of the PMF when forces under its command fired live ammunition at peaceful protesters in 2019, resulting in hundreds of deaths.
Fayyadh was targeted under the Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress in 2012 initially in response to the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison after exposing a tax fraud scheme involving Russian officials. The law named after him was expanded and allows the US to target any foreigner accused of human rights violations and corruption.
Iraq’s biggest anti-government protests in decades broke out in October 2019 and continued for several months, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis demanding jobs, services and the removal of the ruling elite, which they said was corrupt.
Nearly 500 people were killed. The protests caused the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
“By directing and supervising the murder of peaceful Iraqi demonstrators, Iran-aligned militants and politicians such as Falih al-Fayyadh have been waging a violent campaign against Iraqi democracy and civil society,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement.
“The United States will continue to hold accountable human rights abusers in Iraq who aim to deny the Iraqi people in their efforts to peacefully protest, seek justice, and root out corruption in their country.”
Fayyadh’s deputy, powerful militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was considered far more influential over activities of Iran-backed groups in Iraq.
Muhandis was killed in a Washington-directed drone strike last year that targeted and killed top Iranian general Qassim Soleimani outside the Baghdad airport.