Huff: With Soleimani Gone, Iran Escalates Tensions with Iraqi Kurds

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) and Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani give a joint press conference following their meeting in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq on August 26, 2014 . Zarif is on a two-day visit to Iraq, as it fights a …
SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images

Incensed Iraqi Kurdish officials last week hit back at taunts from Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who lashed out at former Iraqi Kurdistan Region (KRG) President Masoud Barzani and Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

During a live broadcast on January 13 vowing revenge for the recently-slain Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Nasrallah minimized the Kurds’ role in defeating ISIS — while claiming credit for Iran and its affiliate proxy militants in Iraq.

Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, managed Iran’s external terrorism operations before an American airstrike eliminated him from the battlefield this month.

“When Kurdistan was falling into the hands of ISIL [the Islamic State] and no one agreed to help you, the only one who responded to your call was Haj Qassem Suleimani, who arrived the next day along with officials from Hezbollah to Erbil,” said Nasrallah, adding that, “when the Islamic State was attacking, [President Masoud] Barzani was shivering from fear.”

Nasrallah demanded that Barzani and the Kurds show gratitude to Soleimani, saying Kurds must repay this good by being part of the effort to expel the Americans from Iraq and the region.

Nasrallah’s searing criticism in this latest spat presented the most vivid enmity between the sides to date. Iraqi Kurds took deep umbrage at the comments, with all factions of the KRG Parliament issuing a joint statement slamming Nasrallah, emphasizing that their Peshmerga forces, “destroyed the myth of ISIS’ invincibility on the battlefield, showed immense courage and gave their lives on behalf of the civilized world to defeat ISIS.”

Masoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous enclave from 2005 to 2017, was commander-in-chief while more than 2,000 Peshmerga were killed and 10,000 wounded in the battle to roll back the caliphate.

“It was the Peshmerga force who protected Erbil and Kurdistan, not anyone else,” declared KRG Spokesman Jutiar Adil.

“It comes as surprise that you, with a shaky voice and in a childish manner, attack … [and] disrespect a brave nation, while you haven’t seen sunlight for years because you hide underground in basements, insult and mock a heroic people. Instead of this unjustified attack you should have defended a persecuted people who have suffered injustice for years,” Adil fired back.

“You who do not dare raise your head for fear of your enemies, so what makes you harass a people without any connection to you?” adding that, “President Barzani is a symbol of the steadfastness of a nation, and you, oh coward, are too little to reach it.”

Adil’s tone is tame by American standards, but Kurdish decorum largely avoids the name-calling and drama dominating today’s discourse in the West, hence it would be unusual to see a senior statesman like Barzani respond in-kind to Nasrallah’s remarks.

“President Barzani devoted all his life to confronting oppressors and to liberating his people, and during the battles to confront ISIS … as commander of the Peshmerga forces … he had a heroic role that made all the people of Kurdistan and many world leaders bear witness to their courage,” responded current KRG President Nechirvan Barzani.

During his tenure, Masoud Barzani declined multiple invitations to visit Tehran, citing the regime’s refusal to display the Kurdish flag during official events, but previously expressed gratitude to Iran for its role.

“We asked for weapons and Iran was the first country to provide us with weapons and ammunition,” said Barzani, while standing next to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the summer of 2014.

It is uncertain what this early support entailed, offered at a time when ISIS reached within 20 miles of the Kurdish capital with an Obama Administration reticent to return to Iraq — yet tacitly permitted Iranian proxies to fill the void.

But the Kurds’ cordiality with Iran did not last long.

In the wake of Iraqi Kurdistan’s successful independence vote in late 2017, Iraqi Hezbollah declared Masoud Barzani as the same as ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and that “We will deal with him as we dealt with [ISIS].” A month later, it was these Iran-backed groups that infamously helped seize the oil-rich Kurdish city of Kirkuk.

The Peshmerga’s stunning rout was made possible thanks to Gen. Qassem Soleimani and militants from groups like Kitaeb al-Hezbollah, flush with American tanks and weapons. Nasrallah’s recent demands that Kurds be thankful to Hezbollah and Soleimani is curious when these affiliates dashed any hopes for Kurdish independence for the foreseeable future.

Fast-forward to this month, and the U.S. found itself forced to engage these very proxies that helped seize the strategic K1 airbase near Kirkuk from the Peshmerga three years prior. This time, their 30-rocket barrage on the K1 base resulted in the death of a U.S. contractor – which, in turn, led to President Trump’s decision to take out Soleimani. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of Kitaeb al-Hezbollah, was killed alongside Soleimani in the recent drone strike.

Mid-level Kurdish officials, perhaps in hopes to elude Iranian retribution, attended memorial vigils for Soleimani held at local Iranian consulates. Yet this and a formal condolence letter was not enough to escape the crosshairs of “Operation Martyr Soleimani,” launched in the early hours of January 8.

As Iran unleashed some dozen Fateh series ballistic missiles on Ayn al-Asad base, two Qiam missiles hit the KRG. The half-hearted strike was interpreted as a warning shot: Kurdish Members of Iraqi Parliament had bravely abstained from the 5 January vote on the expulsion of U.S. forces. Leaders like President Nechirvan Barzani consistently affirm the importance of continued cooperation with U.S. and coalition partners working to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS, and stepped up to call the Iran-backed attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad “unequivocally unacceptable.”

Yet, as with the attack on the K1 base, Iran’s use of ballistic missiles against targets in Iraq carries precedent. In September 2018, Soleimani’s IRGC pounded Iranian Kurdish opposition bases in Iraq with seven Fateh missiles, killing some 16 senior leaders, women, and children in an attempted decapitation strike on their leadership. The U.S. responded with a condemnation from Vice President Mike Pence — an outcome certainly discouraging to any Iranian ethnic minorities seeking to gain traction against the regime.

Further west, in the Kurdish territory of Northeastern Syria, at least one senior leader openly welcomed the death of Soleimani. Salih Muslim, a central figure in the autonomous administration, predicts that the loss of “Iran’s secret hand in Syria” could lead the Syrian regime to “weaken and engage in serious dialogue” with Syria’s Kurds.

“When Damascus is weaker, they will engage with us. Things might turn out to be good for us,” opined Muslim.

Zach D. Huff is a Kurdish affairs analyst and a graduate student at The University of Chicago. He has covered pivotal events from the ground in Kurdish Iraq, Syria, and Iran since 2015.

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