By Shelly Kittleson for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News

In Iraq, tension between the US-led coalition and armed groups linked to Iran has risen in recent months.

For example, the United States sanctioned key representatives of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on Nov. 13, saying they had moved money, acquired weapons and trained fighters in Iraq. Problems have also arisen with some factions of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

As a whole, the PMU are part of Iraq’s security forces, but some of its dozens of factions are Shiite armed groups with ties to Iran. There has long been tension between some of the local Sunni population and those Shiite-majority PMUs from southern and central Iraq.

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(Picture Credit: Tasnim, under Creative Commons licence)

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) took action today to target four Hizballah-affiliated individuals who lead and coordinate the group’s operational, intelligence, and financial activities in Iraq.

Specifically, OFAC designated Shibl Muhsin ‘Ubayd Al-Zaydi, Yusuf Hashim, Adnan Hussein Kawtharani, and Muhammad ‘Abd-Al-Hadi Farhat as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, which targets terrorists and those providing support to terrorists or acts of terrorism.

“Hizballah is a terrorist proxy for the Iranian regime that seeks to undermine Iraqi sovereignty and destabilize the Middle East.  We are targeting terror facilitators like Al-Zaydi who smuggle oil for Iran, raise funds for Hizballah, and send fighters to Syria for the IRGC-Qods Force on behalf of Qasem Soleimani,” said Sigal Mandelker, Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.

“Treasury’s concerted actions aim to deny Hizballah’s clandestine attempts to exploit Iraq to launder funds, procure weapons, train fighters, and collect intelligence as a proxy for Iran.  This administration will impose severe consequences on anyone assisting Hizballah and their global support networks, and those who engage in business relationships with these terrorists expose themselves to serious sanctions risk.”

These designations follow the signing into law on October 25, 2018, of the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act of 2018, which reinforces the U.S. Government’s efforts to protect the international financial system by targeting Hizballah’s supporters, financial networks, and those that facilitate and enable its destabilizing activities worldwide.

Today’s designations specifically target individuals enabling Hizballah’s activities that undermine security and stability in Iraq, and carry significant risks for those attempting to conduct business with Hizballah globally.  Today’s action continues Treasury’s historic level of Hizballah-related designations, which have reached record numbers in 2018.

Treasury’s actions today again highlight the degree to which Hizballah operates as a clandestine, terrorist arm of the Iranian regime.  On November 5, 2018, in its largest ever single-day action targeting the Iranian regime, OFAC sanctioned over 700 individuals, entities, aircraft, and vessels.  This action completed the re-imposition of U.S. nuclear-related sanctions that were lifted or waived under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The individuals designated today are subject to secondary sanctions pursuant to the Hizballah Financial Sanctions Regulations, which implements the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015.  Pursuant to this authority, OFAC can prohibit or impose strict conditions on the opening or maintaining in the United States of a correspondent account or a payable-through account by a foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for Hizballah.

All property and interests in property of those persons designated today that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction are now blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.

Shibl Muhsin ‘Ubayd Al-Zaydi (Al-Zaydi)

Al-Zaydi was designated for acting for or on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Qods Force (IRGC-QF), and assisting in, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of, Hizballah.

Al-Zaydi has served as a financial coordinator between the IRGC-QF and sectarian armed groups in Iraq and assisted in facilitating Iraqi investments on behalf of IRGC-QF Commander Qasem Soleimani, whom OFAC designated on October 11, 2011, for acting for or on behalf of the IRGC-QF.  Al-Zaydi has also coordinated the smuggling of oil from Iran on behalf of Iran, the smuggling of oil into Syria on behalf of Iran, and has sent Iraqi fighters to Syria allegedly at the IRGC-QF’s request.  Al-Zaydi has appeared publically with IRGC-QF Commander Qasem Soleimani at least four times.

Al-Zaydi has maintained close business ties to Hizballah officials and Hizballah financier Adham Tabaja (Tabaja).  These activities have included providing protection for companies in Iraq allegedly financed by Hizballah and facilitating the movement of Hizballah funding into Iraq for investments.  Al-Zaydi has also worked with senior Hizballah officials to transfer large sums of money to Lebanon to help fund Hizballah’s participation in the Syrian civil war.

Moreover, Al-Zaydi has transferred large sums of money to Tabaja and worked with OFAC-designated Muhammad Al-Mukhtar Kallas to facilitate the movement of bulk cash from Iraq to Lebanon on Tabaja’s behalf.  OFAC designated Tabaja on June 6, 2015, for acting for or on behalf of Hizballah.  Tabaja maintains direct ties to senior Hizballah officials and Hizballah’s operational component, the Islamic Jihad, and holds properties in Lebanon on behalf of the group.

In addition, Al-Zaydi is a partner and founder of Global Cleaners S.A.R.L., which OFAC designated on October 20, 2016, as an SDGT pursuant to E.O. 13224 for being owned or controlled by Tabaja.  Also, since its founding in 2014, Al-Zaydi has been the Secretary General of an Iran-aligned Iraqi sectarian armed group.  This armed group primarily operates in Iraq, but has also dispatched fighters to Syria, and its members have trained in Iran and with Hizballah in Lebanon.

Yusuf Hashim (Hashim)

Hashim was designated for acting for or on behalf of Hizballah.

Hashim oversees all Hizballah-related operational activities in Iraq and is in charge of protecting Hizballah interests in Iraq.  Additionally, Hashim arranges for the protection of Tabaja inside of Iraq.

Hashim has also managed Hizballah’s relations with sectarian armed groups in Iraq, including the coordination of the deployment of fighters to Syria.

Adnan Hussein Kawtharani (Kawtharani)

Kawtharani was designated for assisting in, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of, Hizballah.

Kawtharani facilitates business transactions for Hizballah inside Iraq and has attended meetings in Iraq with sectarian armed groups and Hizballah officials.  Kawtharani has also been involved in securing a significant source of funding for Hizballah, and has served as the right hand man for his brother and senior Hizballah member Muhammad Kawtharani, whom OFAC designated on August 22, 2013, pursuant to E.O. 13224, for being in charge of Hizballah’s Iraq activities and working on behalf of Hizballah leadership to promote the group’s interests in Iraq, including Hizballah efforts to provide training, funding, political, and logistical support to Iraqi sectarian armed groups.

Further, as of 2016, Kawtharani worked to obtain a weapons contract in order to raise funds for Hizballah fighters.

Kawtharani is also a partner in the company Global Cleaners S.A.R.L.

Muhammad ‘Abd-Al-Hadi Farhat (Farhat)

Farhat was designated for acting for or on behalf of Hizballah.

Farhat has been involved in advising sectarian armed groups in Iraq on behalf of Hizballah.  As of 2017, Farhat was tasked with collecting security and intelligence information in Iraq and subsequently providing reports to senior Hizballah and Iranian leadership.  Farhat has been involved in a project to analyze and report on the Iraqi security situation for Hizballah and the IRGC-QF.

View identifying information on the individuals designated today.

(Source: OFAC)

By Ali Mamouri for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Two pro-Iranian militias active in Iraq and Syria declared that possible US sanctions targeting them would be ineffective and claimed that such sanctions would actually strengthen their presence and expansion in the Middle East.

The US House of Representatives on May 24 passed sanctions against Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba as an amendment to annual defense legislation. The bill called for sanctions against “persons that are officials, agents, affiliates of or owned and controlled by” the two groups.

Laith al-Azari, a member of Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s political bureau, said on May 30, “Including Asaib Ahl al-Haq, along with some other Iraqi armed factions, on the terrorist list will increase our own ability to confront terrorism and confront US plans in Iraq.”

He did not explain how sanctions could lead to this result, but sees the action as an effort to thwart the pro-Iranian axis of resistance, which includes Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and confront Islamist movements. The sanctions vote followed US President Donald Trump’s May 8 announcement withdrawing the United States from the Iranian nuclear deal, ostensibly in order to reach a better deal that would limit Iran’s military power in the region.

In a May 30 interview with Rudaw, Mohammad Mohi, spokesman for the Hezbollah Brigades, played down the importance of possible US sanctions, stating, “The US decision is not new as far as Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba is concerned. This is not a new issue, but one that has been tackled on an annual basis.” Nujaba leader Akram al-Kaabi was sanctioned in 2008 by the Treasury Department, which designated him an individual “fueling violence” in Iraq.

Mohi linked the House vote to a decision by the Iraqi parliament three months ago obligating the Iraqi government to schedule the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, measures supported by the two groups targeted for sanctions. While condemning foreign interference in Iraqi affairs, including the US and Turkish military presence, Mohi praised the Iranian presence, stating, “Without Iranian support, Iraq would not have defeated the Islamic State [IS]. Had it not been for Iran’s support, Erbil would have fallen [to IS] along with Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. This is why Iran’s intervention was in the interest of the Iraqi people, and it came at a time when other countries were idly watching Iraq head toward an unknown fate.”

The House’s sanctions vote followed Iraq’s May 12 legislative elections, in which the political organizations of the pro-Iranian militias emerged as the second largest coalition, meaning they might have a shot at forming the new government. Asaib Ahl al-Haq looks like it will occupy at least 14 of the 47 seats won by the Al-Fateh Alliance, consisting of pro-Iran factions and headed by Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization. Al-Fateh came in second, behind the Sairoon Alliance, headed by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which won 56 seats. There are 328 seats in the Council of Representatives.

Despite the Sairoon Alliance’s lead, its position could be undermined by independent candidates. It is being reported that a number of independents will be joining the Al-Fataeh Alliance. So far, only one such candidate for Shabak, Qusay Abbas, has joined Al-Fateh after winning a seat.

Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, expects his movement to end up with at least 15 seats once the official results are announced, following the resolution of disputes over balloting irregularities. The Badr Organization is also thinking that it will be allotted additional seats after the results are in. Meanwhile, the State of Law Coalition, another ally of Iran, won 26 seats, and is fully prepared to forge an alliance with Al-Fateh given their common political agendas.

All this means that should Al-Fateh’s natural allies join it, it would beat out the Sairoon Alliance and be in a position to form a government consisting mostly of pro-Iranian factions. If this scenario transpires, the United States could find itself in the very awkward situation of having to deal with a government it is sanctioning, should the sanctions ultimately be adopted. Would the United States actually sever ties with the Iraqi government, a key partner since 2003, or, finding that scenario unpalatable, simply decide to waive or put off new sanctions?

Another scenario that might be even more difficult for the United States would see Sairoon and Al-Fateh coming together around their shared goal of US forces withdrawing from the country and curbing US influence in Iraq and the region. Before that could happen, however, big differences between the two alliances would have to be overcome. Al-Fateh opposes the United States in favor of expanding Tehran’s influence in Iraq and the region, while Sairoon wants an Iraq independent of Iran, free to manage its own internal affairs and regional positions.

Of note, Israeli-Russian understandings, with US buy-in, are being concluded to keep pro-Iranian militias away from the southern border of Syria, which would, of course, undermine the Iranian role in Syria. Regardless, in terms of US interests in Iraq, it appears the United States might ultimately find itself in the dilemma of having to choose between the lesser of evils.

The spokesman for Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Hashim al-Moussawi, believes Washington launched a war on the resistance axis when it reneged on the Iranian nuclear deal and then prepared to impose economic sanctions on Hezbollah supporters. “This is an expected reaction to the losses suffered by the US by the Islamic resistance factions,” he said. “The elections in Lebanon and Iraq and the victory of the resistance [against IS in Iraq] showed the US the high level of threat it is facing.”

Moussawi touts the showing by the Al-Fateh Alliance as a victory for the Iranian axis. “This is why it [the US] is seeking to plunge Iraq into the spiral of permanent chaos,” he said. “The entry of the resistance into political circles will embarrass Washington, which is politically seeking to bypass the axis of resistance.”

By Mustafa Saadoun for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Iraq is facing a new crisis with Saudi Arabia as a result of their differing points of view regarding regional issues, most notably those related to Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which was recently classified by the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a terrorist organization.

The crisis started March 11 when Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari dropped a bombshell during the Arab League meetings in Cairo. He said, “Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units and Lebanon’s Hezbollah preserved the dignity of the Arabs. Those accusing them of terrorism are the terrorists.”

The Saudi delegation withdrew from the meeting, but returned after Jaafari finished speaking.

Tense Saudi-Iranian ties were already affecting the whole region. In a Jan. 19 article by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia accused Iran of “supporting all radical and violent groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and sectarian militias in Iraq.”

At the March 11 meeting, Saudi Arabia was obviously angered by the Iraqi minister defending Hezbollah. However, Jaafari told the press later that day that his defense of Hezbollah “will not affect Iraqi-Saudi ties, and it is normal that two countries have different perspectives.” Those divergent views will not harm bilateral ties between Arab parties, he added.

By Ali Mamouri for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The popular mobilization forces have been widely controversial in Iraq since their inception in June 2014. Public opinion has focused on the legitimacy of these irregular forces, their activities and the possible illegal killings committed by them in the fight against the Islamic State (IS).

In light of the dire need for these forces in the ongoing conflict on the one hand, and lapses in disciplined behavior among their ranks on the other, Iraqis remain conflicted about them.

Reports occasionally appear about violations and abuses by the mobilization forces on the battlefield and off it. At the same time, however, one cannot deny their contribution to hindering IS’ progress toward the central and southern areas of the country.

In addition, the forces have also recently made offensive advances against IS, improving their reputation in the public’s eye and in the Iraqi political arena.

The popular mobilization forces were formed after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling on all those able to take up arms and volunteer in the security forces in the fight against IS. The forces were to fall under the umbrella of the state’s security services and within its legal frameworks and practices.

In the course of events, however, some of these groups embarked on a different path, operating independently, outside judicial and governmental monitoring and supervision, somewhat along the lines of Iran’s Basij, which were founded in 1979 at the directive of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Resistance factions and the army were still fighting on several axes Baghdad/Obelisk: a secret peace, announced on Sunday that the Islamic resistance groups and the army are still fighting on several axes, indicating that the siege of amerli area first…