How effective are US sanctions on Iran-linked militias in Iraq?

More must be done before American words can be believed rather than met with laughter from opponents and its actions can be taken wholly seriously.

In Iraq, the streets are full of demonstrators and the country is convulsed by violence inflicted on those protesting against its dysfunctional state.

The violence is attributed to the Iraqi state, to killers among militias that dominate Iraqi national life and to agents of Iranian influence, whose decades-long role in influencing Iraqi politics has been increasingly exposed in recent months and clearly unpopular among Iraqis.

Violence against demonstrators has met with boilerplate condemnation from leaders of other countries but little concrete action.

The United States maintained that violence must stop but did little to impede the ability of the militias or the Iraqi state to repress those on the streets. With instituting sanctions on militia leaders close to Iran, the US Treasury Department seems to have taken steps to address one half of that equation.

In a statement regarding sanctions on Qais al-Khazali, Laith al-Khazali and Husayn Falih Aziz al-Lami, US officials noted what they termed “serious human rights abuse” against demonstrators. The sanctions also targeted a businessman accused of corruptly influencing Iraqi politics.

The significance of the sanctions is subject to debate.

Qais al-Khazali is the leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH). He was an organiser of Iran-supported opposition to the United States after the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 2003, a significant figure in the Shia paramilitary organisations that the Americans termed Special Groups.

His sanctioning demonstrates an American willingness to name figureheads of continuing Iranian influence among the militias but, as Khazali himself joked on hearing the news, the sanctioning was ineffective and came too late.

“We’re really hurting,” Khazali said to laughs. “I’m personally hurting.”

Sanctions were overdue and insufficient, he noted. “We’ve been fighting the Americans since 2003,” he said, “and just now? We’re also hurting because it’s not sufficient, a joke. They should designate us as terrorists or international terrorists.”

Khazali is an emblematic figure, said Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s not just the political sections that have power in the Iraqi system,” Smyth said. “It’s also [Khazali’s] militia” that “form three separate brigades within Al-Hashed al-Shaabi.”

Al-Hashed, or the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), is the officially recognised, formal grouping of militias that supplemented the Iraqi military during its fight against the Islamic State and, after the legalisation of militias in 2016, dominate Iraqi politics.

“A lot of power comes from that section” of Khazali’s operation, Smyth said. “They have advanced heavy weapons… and control some strategic areas.”

(Khazali) “built his reputation within Sadrist ranks for being a tough guy… and having loyalist followers,” Smyth said.

Khazali’s forces are accused of committing atrocities beyond its role in repressing protests. Those accusations including reprisal attacks on tribes, maintaining criminal extortion and attacks on those within Shia tribes that exhibit political differences with AAH.

“Qais Khazali’s militia AAH is responsible for killing and intimidating protesters. His offices have been burned by Shia protesters. He’s blamed Israel, Saudi [Arabia] and the US for the protests, calling Iraqis collaborators. If you pay attention to the crowd in his speeches you can see that they don’t believe him,” said Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

However, “his designation will mean nothing if the US doesn’t use it as leverage with Baghdad. After all, Abu Mehdi al-Mohandes, a designated terrorist, is considered de facto prime minister of Iraq.”

Financially, the sanctions do not affect the capacity of Iran-linked militias to continue operations and cannot diminish their numbers or hold on the Iraqi system in its present form, with the domination of militias largely unchallenged.

“Mohandes — like Khazali — receives a paycheque from Baghdad, controls a $1.6 billion budget, has access to US funds. His men have access to US training and equipment and, more important, this designated terrorist has access to US intelligence shared with Baghdad,” Pregent said.

“Designation means nothing as long as Mohandes and Khazali maintain their influence and primacy in Baghdad,” Pregent said.

“As long as… Khazali can cite Kataib Hezbollah leader and Deputy Commander of Al-Hashed al-Shaabi Abu Mehdi al-Mohandes as an example of how inconsequential a US terrorist designation is and sanctions are — he’s right that this is meaningless absent US actions,” Pregent said.

“Designation and sanctions on a militia leader are now considered badges of honour. It’s actually more insulting not to designate them then to designate them because we do nothing after that.”

Iranian influence in Iraq is suitably entrenched that US sanctions of this sort will have little effect but there are options the Americans could employ if they wished to have more than a symbolic effect.

“The US should use its levers on Baghdad, pull the loan guarantees and end the US train-and-equip programme as long as Baghdad allows sanctioned individuals and designated terrorists access to US funds, training, equipment and intelligence,” Pregent said.

If it did so, the United States would move closer towards undermining Iran’s unpopular domination of Iraqi politics and show more willingness than is in evidence to deter those who commit violence against Iraq’s protesters and its errant tribes.

More must be done before American words can be believed rather than met with laughter from opponents and its actions can be taken wholly seriously.

James Snell is a British journalist

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.