Kurdistan Accuses Iran of Stoking Tensions Between Peshmerga and Iraqi Troops

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have been fighting Islamic State in northern Iraq
JM Lopez/AFP

U.S.-designated state-sponsor of terror Iran is helping Shiite-led Baghdad gain control of disputed territory in northern Iraq, according to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Iranian officials rebuff the allegation that Tehran is playing a vital role in the fall of disputed territories in northern Iraq, reported Voice of America (VOA).

Assisted by Shiite paramilitary groups under the Iran-allied umbrella organization known as the Popular Mobilization Forces/Units (PMF/PMU) or al-Hashd al-Shaabi, the Iraqi military has forced the KRG out of various disputed areas including Kirkuk, Shingal, Gwer, Makhmour, Khanaqin, and Snune, Rudaw recently noted.

The Iraqi military and Baghdad-sanctioned PMU fighters recently took control of oil-rich Kirkuk after the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters withdrew from the region.

“Iranians were leading the battle on Kirkuk, and our forces had to withdraw to protect the lives of Peshmerga,” Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, the commander of Kirkuk-based Peshmerga forces, declared in a statement Monday, stressing, “The decision [to withdraw] was not a mistake.”

Iran maintains a significant level of influence over Shiite-led Baghdad, but Tehran refused any involvement in Baghdad taking over the disputed territories, claiming that it respects the sovereignty of its neighbor Iraq.

““Iran plays no role in the Kirkuk operation, and the majority of the Kurdish people of Iraq are against the ambitious actions of [Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Massoud] Barzani,” Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told reporters Tuesday.

“We saw that almost without any conflict, the region came under the control of Iraqi central government. Barzani must realize and admit that he has made a mistake,” he added, referring to the controversial independence referendum vote held by the KRG on September 25.

The vote, overwhelmingly approved by the Kurds, has triggered ongoing tensions between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.

Neighboring countries — Iran, Turkey, and Syria — oppose Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence efforts, citing fears that it will induce separatism among their respective Kurdish populations.

Although the Pentagon has praised the PMU’s role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), the Financial Times (FT) reported that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is concerned about the role the PMU is playing in the dispute between the KRG and Baghdad.

“We do have concerns about having PMF in those [disputed] areas [claimed by Baghdad and Erbil] and would like those to be pulled for more regular Iraqi forces to take over,” the U.S. official told FT. “We recognize the federal government’s prerogative in re-establishing a presence in the areas they’ve taken back. But we also need to know there is a limit that he [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi] has placed on these movements.”

Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition has denied that the PMU or Iran’s hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are operating in the disputed city of Kirkuk, the capital of a province of the same name that fell into the hands of Baghdad.

On Tuesday, Col. Ryan Dillion, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition spokesperson, told reporters, “We don’t have any reporting or any indications that there are units in and around Kirkuk of [IRGC] elements.”

Nevertheless, the Kurdish Peshmerga Ministry alleged Monday that the IRGC led the Iraqi offensive to capture Kirkuk.

“Domestically, some put the blame on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party (PUK) as well, alleging that because of their rivalry with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, they yielded the way for advancing Iraqi and PMF forces,” acknowledged VOA.

In a statement issued Monday, the Peshmerga Ministry reportedly said:

The [Kirkuk] attack, which came from the Iraqi government, the Popular Mobilization Forces, and IRGC’s Quds forces, is in retaliation to the calls for freedom by the people of Kurdistan. Unfortunately, some PUK leaders aided the conspiracy … by leaving some key defense lines to the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Iranian IRGC.

Amid the U.S.-backed offensive to liberate Mosul in November 2016, Baghdad legalized the Iran-allied Shiite PMU troops as an official component of the Iraqi military.

Kirkuk, an area rich with natural resources, including gas and oil that lies outside the borders of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, is claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil.

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