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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

US probes pharma firms accused of aiding Iraqi militia that killed Americans

The lawsuit argues firms knowingly provided drugs sold on by the Mahdi Army to fund attacks on US troops

Shiite Muslims protest close to an image of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr during a protest following Friday noon prayers in the impoverished Sadr City neighborhood of eastern Baghdad in 2008. AFP PHOTO 
Shiite Muslims protest close to an image of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr during a protest following Friday noon prayers in the impoverished Sadr City neighborhood of eastern Baghdad in 2008. AFP PHOTO 

Michael Chand was working in south-east Iraq as a civilian contractor for American reconstruction efforts when his convoy was attacked in 2007 by forces believed to be loyal to then firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr.

At first, his family were told he was shot and killed. They later learned he was being held hostage at a time when militant attacks on American forces were at their bloodiest.

His body was returned three years later, bearing the hallmarks of torture.

Now his widow is one of the dozens of bereaved relatives who accuse big international pharmaceutical companies of helping bankroll the Mahdi Army in its campaign of violence through kickbacks of medicine and supplies given to the Iraqi ministry of health which was then under Mr Al Sadr’s control.

For Washington, Mr Al Sadr has been the most vocal opponent of the American war. His militias were blamed for deadly attacks on a US-backed political opponent and soldiers, triggering an arrest warrant for murder that was never executed. But in recent years he has moved away from his openly anti-US stance and the position in Washington has softened.

The five pharmaceutical companies deny the allegations but this week it emerged that the US Department of Justice had launched an investigation.

In a regulatory filing, AstraZeneca, the UK pharmaceutical giant, said it “has received an inquiry from the US Department of Justice in connection with an anti-corruption investigation relating to activities in Iraq, including interactions with the Iraqi government and certain of the same matters alleged in the lawsuit.”

The suit, filed in federal court in the District of Columbia on behalf of 112 victims, seeks to hold five companies responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers from 2005 to 2009.

The defendants are household names: General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Roche as well as AstraZeneca.

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“The terrorist-finance mechanism was straightforward: the terrorists openly controlled the Iraqi ministry in charge of importing medical goods, and defendants — all of which are large Western medical-supply companies — obtained lucrative contracts from that ministry by making corrupt payments to the terrorists who ran it,” says the suit. Mr Al Sadr nor his Mahdi Army were ever officially designated as terrorists by the US.

The action dates to some of the darkest days of post-Saddam Iraq, as insurgent forces rolled back US hopes of quick victory with IED blasts and ambushes.

Mr Al Sadr emerged as a key figure after the 2005 elections and a loyalist took control of the ministry of health as the government divvied up key positions.

Visitors were left in no doubt about who was in control.

Flags of the Mahdi Army – or Jaysh al-Mahdim – were on display at the ministry beside banners proclaiming, “Death to America and Israel.” A mural of Mr Al Sadr stood at the entrance.

“Sunnis and secular technocrats alike were purged in what one percipient witness describes as a widespread ‘occupational cleansing',” the lawsuit alleges. “Doctors who exhibited insufficient loyalty to the Sadrists were killed or forced to flee.”

So clear was the influence, that during a 2007 press conference, Gen David Petraeus, the senior American commander in the country, said Sadrists had “effectively hijacked the Ministry of Health”.

At the same time, the ministry’s budget expanded rapidly with an influx of US aid – from $16 million in 2003 to more than $1 billion a year later.

The suit claims the ministry demanded a 20 per cent “religious tax” on contracts which was paid for with donations of drugs and services.

Meanwhile, the Mahdi Army accelerated Iraq’s slide into civil war. After launching the first Shia attacks on American forces in 2004, it was accused of running death squads against Sunnis to remove them from swaths of Baghdad and carrying out a string of atrocities.

Mr Al Sadr eventually fled to Iran, for voluntary exile in 2008 for three years- upon his return in 2011 American forces had completed their withdrawal.

The cleric was able to gather public support by launching campaigns and protests against corruption within the Shiite-led government as well as standing against Iranian influence in the country.

This year when his slate’s strong showing in elections – predicated on tackling anti-sectarian and the outside influence of Iran and the US - propelled him into the role of kingmaker.

Iraqi Shiite cleric and leader Moqtada al-Sadr puts his ballot through an electronic counting machine into a ballot box at poll station in the central holy city of Najaf on May 12, 2018. The Iraqi parliament has opened an enquiry into possible vote rigging. Haidar Hamdani / AFP
Iraqi Shiite cleric and leader Moqtada al-Sadr puts his ballot through an electronic counting machine in the central holy city of Najaf on May 12, 2018. AFP

The activities of his militia are under fresh scrutiny after changes to US law demanded by relatives of people who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It expanded corporate civil liability under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

The defendants have filed a court motion to dismiss the case.

They say they “vigorously” deny knowingly supporting terrorism. In a lengthy filing, they argue they merely answered the US government’s call to do business with the Iraqi ministry of health and donate medicines.

They also point out that Jaysh al-Mahdi is not designated as a foreign terrorist organisation.

A spokesperson for AstraZeneca confirmed the approach by the Department of Justice and added: “AstraZeneca has a robust and dynamic compliance program, and we refuse to tolerate bribery or any other form of corruption.”