By Daphne Psaledakis and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON, Nov 17 (Reuters) – The United States on Friday issued sanctions targeting Iran-aligned militia groups, accusing them of being involved in attacks against the United States and its partners in Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. State Department designated Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada and its secretary general as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, while the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on six people affiliated with Kata’ib Hizballah in Iraq.
U.S. and coalition troops have been attacked at least 58 times in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17 as regional tensions soar over the Israel-Hamas war. At least 59 U.S. military personnel have been wounded in the attacks, though all have returned to duty so far.
“Today’s action sends a message to Kata’ib Hizballah and all other Iran-backed groups that the United States will use all available measures to hold to account any opportunistic actors who seek to exploit the situation in Gaza for their own ends,” the Treasury Department‘s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Brian Nelson, said in a statement.
The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of those targeted and generally bar Americans from dealing with them. Those that engage in certain transactions with them also risk being hit with sanctions.
Among those linked to Kata’ib Hizballah targeted on Friday are a member of the group’s lead decision-making body, its foreign affairs chief and a military commander the Treasury said has worked with Iran‘s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to train fighters.
An official in the Quds Force, the arm of the IRGC that controls its allied militias in the region, who Washington said facilitates travel and training of Kata’ib Hizballah fighters in Iran, was also hit with sanctions.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a separate statement that Iran has supported the groups and others with training, funding and sophisticated weapons, “including increasingly accurate and lethal unmanned aerial systems,” and added that Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada has planned and supported attacks against U.S. personnel.
“The United States remains committed to using all available tools to counter Iran’s support for terrorism and degrade and disrupt the ability of Iran-backed groups to conduct terrorist attacks,” Blinken said.
The United States has 900 troops in Syria, and 2,500 more in neighboring Iraq, to advise and assist local forces trying to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State, which in 2014 seized large swaths of both countries but was later defeated.
There is growing concern the Israel-Hamas conflict could spread through the Middle East, with U.S. troops at bases throughout the region becoming targets.
The United States has deployed additional air defenses and sent warships and fighter aircraft to the region since the Israel-Hamas conflict erupted on Oct. 7, including two aircraft carriers, to try to deter Iran and Iran-backed groups.
The number of troops added to the region is in the thousands.
Reuters has reported that the U.S. military was taking new measures to protect its Middle East forces during the ramp-up in attacks by suspected Iran-backed groups, and was leaving open the possibility of evacuating military families if needed.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Phil Stewart, Paul Grant and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Daniel Wallis)
(Reporting by Paul Grant and Doina Chiacu;)