A senior leader within the Iran-backed Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah has described the invasion of Kurdish-held Kirkuk, Iraq, as “a victory over the U.S. and Israel,” referring to the attack as “our victory” specifically.
While reports have not highlighted a Hezbollah role in the attack, the Iraqi government is relying heavily on the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Iran-backed Shiite militias, to combat the Kurdish Peshmerga. The head of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, reportedly visited Iraq last week to help plan the invasion of Kurdish territory.
“Our victory in Kirkuk is a victory over the U.S. and Israel and an answer to Trump’s threats to Iran,” Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, deputy head of Hezbollah’s executive council, reportedly said during a speech in Lebanon this week, according to the Kurdish outlet Rudaw.
Israel is the only Mideast nation to have supported the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s decision to hold a referendum on independence. Iranian officials, citing Israeli support for the pro-West, pro-democracy Kurdish government, have insisted that the referendum was a “Zionist plot” despite the fact that most of the over 90 percent of Kurds who voted for independence are Sunni Muslims.
Qaouk did not explain his inclusion of the United States in his comments, however, whose government has openly opposed the Kurdistan referendum despite a close alliance with the government in Erbil.
Hezbollah officials also accused the United States of creating and supporting the Islamic State this weekend, despite America’s continued efforts, alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga, to eradicate the terrorist organization.
“The entire world knows that the US and its allies created Daesh and dispatched terrorists from across the world to Syria,” Deputy Secretary General of the terrorist group Sheikh Naim Qassem said, according to Iranian state media outlet PressTV.
IRGC Gen. Mohammad Pakpour went on to argue that the Kurdistan referendum was a new plot to sow discord in Iraq following the Kurds’ elimination of ISIS in most of the country. Pakpour also did not clarify how the United States supported the referendum or address the State Department’s vocal opposition to the referendum.
The U.S. State Department rejected the idea of an Iranian role in the destabilization of Kurdistan on Thursday, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged the presence of Iranian fighters there on Sunday. “Certainly Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fighting against (ISIS) is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” he said at a press conference in Riyadh.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who was also in Riyadh, responded to the call for the PMF to vacate the area with a demand Tillerson stay out of Iraq’s business.
“No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” a statement from Abadi’s office read.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif responded to Tillerson by denying that the PMF were Iran-backed or Iranian at all. “Exactly what country is it that Iraqis, who rose up to defend their homes against ISIS, [should] return to?” Zarif asked on Twitter, calling the United States’ foreign policy “shameful.”
With ISIS mostly eradicated from northern Iraq—in large part due to the work of the Kurdish Peshmerga—the PMF have no concrete reason to remain active in the area. The Iraqi government legalized the PMF as a formal wing of the Iraqi military last year to grant them access to Mosul, the nation’s second-largest city, then under ISIS control. Now, Baghdad has turned the PMF on Kirkuk, a city Baghdad lost control of when the Iraqi army fled in the face of an Islamic State attack. The Peshmerga stepped in after the Iraqi army fled, kept ISIS out, and kept the city’s lucrative oil production flowing until two weeks ago, when the PMF invaded.
“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,” the Peshmerga said in a statement following the initial assault. “Unfortunately, some PUK leaders aided the conspiracy … by leaving some key defense lines to the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Iranian IRGC.”