Iran-Iraq War on the Kurds

By Kelly Jane Torrance

The Weekly Standard

October 30, 2017

Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi took to Twitter on October 13 to dispute rumors that his forces were mobilizing to take over areas under the control of Iraqi Kurds, particularly the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. “The fake news being spread has a deplorable agenda behind it,” he wrote. As with most deployments of the term, “fake news” meant “news I don’t like.” Just three days later, Iraqi and allied militias took Kirkuk by force. There were casualties on both sides, though it’s not clear how many; almost immediately, some 100,000 civilians fled. U.S. Central Command was just as disingenuous as the Iraqi leader: “We believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions,” it said in a statement.

“Who is responsible for what happened?” one civilian who left asked a CNN reporter in despair. He wasn’t the only person wondering how one ostensible U.S. ally could get away with attacking another. The Kurds have been the paramount partners in the U.S. battle against the Islamic State. Iraqi military were accompanied by paramilitary fighters, and it became clear that the United States knew about the operation ahead of time. When asked if America had given the go-ahead, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said simply, “We have long called for a unified, democratic Iraq.”

Against the Kurds, Iraqi troops used military equipment the United States had provided to them for the purpose of vanquishing the Islamic State. But there was more to the taking of Kirkuk than that. The civilian’s question can be best answered by looking at the most notable figures present when the Kurdish flag was removed from Kirkuk’s provincial council building and the Iraqi flag was raised in its place: Counter Terrorism Service commander Abdul Ghani al-Asadi, Badr Organization president Hadi al-Ameri, and Popular Mobilization Forces commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The CTS is an elite Iraqi military unit trained by the United States. Badr and PMF (also known as Hashd al-Shaabi) are Iraqi militias with direct ties to Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Tensions have been high between the Kurds and the Iraqi government since the former voted overwhelmingly in a September 25 referendum to seek independence. But it wasn’t until President Donald Trump announced the decertification of the Iran nuclear deal and increased sanctions on the IRGC in a speech Friday, October 13, that the real power behind the Baghdad government took decisive action. That weekend, Qassem Suleimani, leader of the IRGC’s foreign arm the Quds Force, met with representatives of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main Kurdish factions, in Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. Through a combination of persuasion (cash) and threats (of force), he reportedly secured an agreement that their forces would stand down when the militias entered Kirkuk on Monday. It was the elements of the Kurdish military loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic party, a PUK rival, who offered the only resistance. (The PUK has demanded that Iraq shut down the Rudaw Media Network after it reported that militia members beheaded some of the Kurdish fighters.)

The Iranian regime, for once, kept its word and rather quickly. A foreign ministry spokesman warned days before Trump’s speech that if the president declared the IRGC a terrorist organization, “Iran’s reaction would be firm, decisive, and crushing.” It took mere hours after Trump’s announcement for the IRGC’s Suleimani to arrange a blow to a U.S. ally. He had plenty of resources to draw on in Iraq, where Iranian influence has steadily grown over the last few years. Badr was created in Iran, and Iraqi exiles fought under its auspices for the Islamic Republic in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Muhandis, the PMF commander on hand in Kirkuk, is a close adviser to Suleimani and himself a U.S. Treasury-designated terrorist.

The only thing more incredible than the fact IRGC-backed militias used U.S. weapons to attack a U.S. ally is that the Trump administration has accepted the situation. In his speech on Iran, President Trump declared, “Our policy is based on a clear-eyed assessment of the Iranian dictatorship, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its continuing aggression in the Middle East and all around the world.” But he seems unconcerned that the regime responded to that denunciation with force. “We’re not taking sides,” President Trump said when asked about Kirkuk—though allowing Iranian-directed militias to take the Kurdish city of a million is, of course, choosing a side. Fox News actually spun “Iraq reclaims Kirkuk” as one of Trump’s “major victories” in the Middle East, which the president approvingly shared on Twitter. One of the president’s top spokesmen sounded positively Obamian in discussing the debacle. “We remain very concerned about the situation in northern Iraq,” National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton told NBC News. “We urge both parties to stand down and resolve any dispute peacefully and politically, remain united in the fight against ISIS and remain united against a common threat in Iran.”

Those last few words are laughable—the Iraqi military has been working with Iranian-backed militias for years. But the mention of ISIS highlights another, very serious consequence of America’s abandonment of the Kurds. Back when Suleimani was directing Shia combatants to kill hundreds of American troops in Iraq, the Kurds were helping the United States fight terrorists. They captured al Qaeda member Hassan Ghul on his way from Iraq to Iran and handed him over to the American military. He divulged the identity of Osama bin Laden’s messenger, information that eventually led to the al Qaeda leader’s death.

It was the Kurds’ brave and determined stand against the Islamic State that led to their control of Kirkuk, which has about 10 percent of Iraq’s known oil reserves. In the late 1950s, Arabs made up less than a quarter of the city, but Saddam Hussein instituted an “Arabization” program, forcibly relocating Kurds, Turkmen, and Assyrians and installing Arabs in their place. But the Iraqi military stripped off their uniforms and fled the city ignominiously in 2014 when the Islamic State began seizing areas nearby. The Kurds stayed and fought, eventually retaking the city from the jihadists. They’ve held it ever since. Over a million Christian, Yazidi, and Arab refugees have found asylum in that area and others controlled by the Kurds since the murderous Islamic State began killing, torturing, and raping them. More than 1,700 Kurdish fighters have died fighting ISIS alongside the United States.

As soon as Iraqi and Iranian-backed militias focused their U.S.-provided military equipment on the Kurds in Kirkuk and other areas, the Islamic State took advantage. After the Kurdish peshmerga withdrew in nearby Dibis, dozens—possibly hundreds—of ISIS jihadists escaped from detention. The terrorist group launched attacks on a number of villages near Kirkuk, capturing three of them. Coalition forces—including Americans and Kurds—might have just retaken ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria after a long battle, but the jihadist group is by no means destroyed.

Meanwhile, another sworn enemy of the United States increases its grip on the region—with the aid of America itself. It’s not just the weapons, equipment, and training the United States gives the Iraqis, which are now being used against not ISIS but America’s best ally in the fight against ISIS. More money has been flowing into Iranian regime coffers since the nuclear deal secured the Islamic Republic sanctions relief and the ability to attract more foreign investment. A U.S. general has estimated that Iran funds its militias in Iraq to the tune of $750,000 to $3 million a month. The United States insists Iraq must remain a unified country. But what if it becomes unified under the sway of a terrorist regime whose leaders regularly chant “Death to America”?