The Kurdish outlet Rudaw has published a video allegedly showing a member of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a coalition of mostly Shiite Iran-backed militias, hanging a photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in the Kirkuk, Iraq, governorate’s building.
The PMF and Iraqi military invaded Kirkuk this week, wresting it out of Kurdish control, in retaliation for the decision by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to hold a non-binding referendum asking KRG residents whether they would support the creation of a sovereign Kurdish state. Over 90 percent of voters said “yes” to independence.
According to Rudaw, the video they have published shows a PMF fighter displaying a photo of Khamenei. “We hung our pictures. What more are you waiting for? I am now in Kirkuk. We are now inside the governorate’s building,” Rudaw translates the fighter as stating.
The report claims he then “derides the Kurdish forces and nation calling to drag them into a fight over the city.”
“We reclaimed Kirkuk. Are you not ashamed? Where are the men? Did you not say ‘we are men coming from Erbil and Sulaimani to preserve Kirkuk and Kirkuk is ours’? Where are you?,” he reportedly asks.
Rudaw notes that the video appears to contradict claims by U.S. coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon that the PMF had not entered Kirkuk city. “We do not have reports of PMF units or the types of units … in and around the Kirkuk area,” Dillon said this week.
The video is taken indoors and the person filming does not move the camera around the location, however, so there are no obvious indicators that the video was taken in the building Rudaw claims it is in.
The presence of an image of Khamenei in such a building, if confirmed, would lend credence to the arguments from Kurdish officials and supporters that the invasion of Kirkuk subsequent to the independence referendum is largely an Iranian-controlled operation, given Iran’s support to the PMF and the woeful reputation of the Iraqi army. Kurdish outlets are also reporting disturbing instances of looting in Kurdish areas following the flight of 61,000 people from Kirkuk.
The Iraqi army’s repeated failures led to Baghdad legalizing the PMF as official government armed forces before the battle to reclaim Mosul from the Islamic State this year. Those failures also resulted in the Kurds controlling multi-ethnic Kirkuk in the first place – Iraqi soldiers abandoned Kirkuk to the Islamic State in 2014, leaving the Peshmerga to defend and hold it against ISIS attack.
Peshmerga officials decried Iranian involvement in the invasion of KRG territory in statements this week. “Iranians were leading the battle on Kirkuk and our forces had to withdraw to protect the lives of Peshmerga,” Kirkuk Peshmerga commander Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa said on Monday.
The Ministry of Peshmerga itself said in a subsequent statement that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were directly involved in the attacks. The Iraqi government in Baghdad has confirmed that Qasem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s notorious Quds Force terror unit, is “advising” the PMF in Kirkuk.
Bas News, a Kurdish outlet, reported on Wednesday that the Quds Force has established at least five bases in Kirkuk so far.
“Iran has no role in Kirkuk operation and most Iraqi Kurdish people are opposed to [KRG president] Masoud Barzani’s ambitions,” top Khamenei adviser Ali Akbar Velayati claimed on Tuesday.
The United States, which has heavily relied on the Peshmerga in the fight against the Islamic State, has refused to support the Kurds in their calls for dialogue with the Iraqi government and an end to the invasion of their territory. “As we watch the situation unfold in Iraq, we continue to call for calm, to call for calm on the part of the Kurds, on the part of the government in Baghdad as well,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a press briefing on Tuesday.