The United States has declared the leader of the Iran-backed Kataib Hizbullah (KH) militant group in Iraq a terrorist following a number of recent rocket attacks on bases hosting U.S. and other foreign troops in Iraq.
A State Department official on February 26 said the United States had listed Ahmad al-Hamidawi, head of the armed faction of the group, as a "specially designated global terrorist."
The action will freeze U.S. assets that he might hold and make any transactions with him a crime. Kataib Hizbullah wasdeclared a terrorist group in 2009.
"Today we are intensifying our pressure on this terrorist group," Nathan Sales, the State Department counterterrorism chief, told a news conference.
He asserted that the group's goal was to "advance the Iranian regime goal of turning Iraq into a vassal state."
Sales said the group "continues to present a threat to U.S. forces in Iraq."
The U.S. military has blamed Shi'ite paramilitary groups, including KH specifically, for the rocketing and shelling of bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq and of the area around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"KH has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, including [improvised explosive devices] attacks, rocket-propelled grenade attacks, and sniper operations," a State Department statement said.
It added that on December 27, it "launched a rocket attack against an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk, killing Nawres Hamid, an American civilian contractor, and injuring four U.S. service members and two members of the Iraqi security forces."
It also said that "KH was reportedly involved in sniper attacks on peaceful protesters in Baghdad, which killed more than 100 people and injured another 6,000.”
Iraq has been hit by massive street protests by demonstrators expressing anger over what they call the "elite's" takeover of government and over foreign influence, including that of Iran, in the country.
The protests led to a violent crackdown by government forces, but there were also attacks on protesters by many Iran-backed groups, including KH, according to activists and U.S. officials.
Attacks on U.S. and coalition forces have also increased since the January 3 U.S. killing of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran's elite Quds Force, in a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad's airport.
Iran has acknowledged some of the attacks directly, including a missile strike on Ain al-Asad and another air base hosting U.S. troops in Iraq, calling them revenge for the Soleimani killing.