Iranian commander issued stark warning to Iraqi Kurds over Kirkuk
Iranian commander issued stark warning to Iraqi Kurds over Kirkuk
Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, traveled to Iraq’s Kurdistan region to meet Kurdish leaders at least three times this month before the Baghdad government’s lightning campaign to recapture territory across the north.
The presence of Soleimani on the frontlines highlights Tehran’s heavy sway over policy in Iraq, and comes as Shiite Iran seeks to win a proxy war in the Middle East with its regional rival and US ally, Sunni Saudi Arabia.
Soleimani met leaders from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish political parties in northern Iraq, in the city of Sulaimania the day before Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi ordered his forces to advance on Kirkuk, according to a PUK lawmaker briefed on the meeting.
His message was clear: withdraw or risk losing Tehran as a strategic ally.
“Abadi has all the regional powers and the West behind him and nothing will stop him from forcing you to return back to the mountains if he decides so,” the lawmaker quoted Soleimani as telling the PUK leadership.
The Iranian general evoked late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s massive attack on a Kurdish rebellion in 1991, when almost the entire Kurdish population fled northern Iraq to the mountains, the PUK lawmaker said.
“Soleimani’s visit ... was to give a last-minute chance for the decision-makers not to commit a fatal mistake,” said the lawmaker, who like others interviewed in this story declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Commanders of the Iraqi Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, have accused Iran of orchestrating the Shiite-led Iraqi central government’s push into areas under their control, a charge senior Iranian officials have denied.
But Iran has made no secret of its presence in Iraq.
“Tehran’s military help is not a secret anymore. You can find General Soleimani’s pictures in Iraq everywhere,” said an official close to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“Now, beside political issues, Kirkuk’s oil is a very key element for Iran, which is an OPEC member. Control of those oil fields by Iran’s enemies would be disastrous for us. Why should we let them enter the oil market?.”
“THERE WILL BE CONFLICT“
Kirkuk fell to Iraqi government forces on Monday. Their offensive followed a referendum last month in which the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region voted to secede from Iraq against Baghdad’s wishes.
Kurds have sought an independent state for almost a century, after colonial powers divided up the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and left Kurdish-populated territory split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
But Iraq’s two main Kurdish parties have been at odds over both the referendum and the approach to the crisis in Kirkuk, which the Kurds consider to be the heart of their homeland.
The PUK, a close ally of Iran, accused its rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), of putting the Kurds at risk of military intervention and isolation by pushing hard for the vote, which won wide approval for independence.
Soleimani has been allied to the PUK for years, but the referendum has drawn him even closer to Kurdish politics and expanded Iran’s reach in Iraq beyond the Baghdad government.
The Iranian general is no stranger to conflicts in Iraq, which fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. He has often been seen in footage from the frontlines, and Iran has long helped Baghdad to carry out its military strategy through paramilitary Shiite militias which it funds and arms.
Before the referendum, Soleimani suggested to Kurdish leaders that holding a vote on secession — which Iran feared would encourage its own Kurdish population to agitate for greater autonomy — would be risky.
“The Iranians were very clear. They have been very clear that there will be conflict, that these territories will be lost,” said one prominent Iraqi Kurdish politician who met Soleimani ahead of the Sept. 25 referendum.
On Oct. 6, barely a week after the vote, Soleimani attended the funeral of PUK leader Jalal Talabani. Again, he wanted to make sure even his closest Kurdish allies understood the dangers of not withdrawing from Kirkuk, officials said.
A senior Iranian diplomat in Iraq and an official in Iran close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office said Soleimani met with Kurdish leaders after Talibani’s funeral and urged them to withdraw from Kirkuk and in exchange Tehran would protect their interests.
Soleimani met with one of Talabani’s sons, Bafel, a few days after his father was buried, one of the PUK officials said.
“Soleimani said Abadi should be taken very seriously. You should understand this,” the official said.
An Iranian source in Iraq said Soleimani was in Kirkuk two nights before the Iraqi government offensive for “a couple of hours to give military guidance.” Iraqi intelligence sources said Tehran sent a clear signal to the PUK.
“We understand from our sources on the ground that neighboring Iran played a decisive role in making the PUK chose the right course with Baghdad,” one Iraqi intelligence official told Reuters.
Tensions over the referendum and Kirkuk have deepened divisions between the two main political parties in northern Iraq. The KDP accused the PUK of betraying the Kurdish cause by capitulating to Iran and striking a deal to withdraw.
“The Talabani clan were behind the offensive on Kirkuk. They asked Qassem (Soleimani) for help and his troops were there on the ground,” said a source close to Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government and head of the KDP.
“It is becoming clear that Iran is directing the operations to destroy the KDP.”
The PUK strongly denies this. Talabani’s son Bafel accused the KDP of missing a zero-hour chance to avoid losing Kirkuk by failing to reach a deal over a military base which Iraqi government forces had demanded to take back.
“Unfortunately we reacted too slowly. And we find ourselves where we are today,” Bafel told Reuters.
Two other Kurdish political sources gave a similar account.
Iran and Soleimani offered early assistance to northern Iraq’s Kurds in the fight against Islamic State, a rallying point for the Kurdish community. But after the devastating loss of Kirkuk, Iraqi Kurds have been left disillusioned.
“They (both PUK and KDP leaders) just make decisions on their own and play with people’s lives. In the end, we pay the price,” said pensioner Abdullah Ahmed in Sulaimania.
“This is a disaster for everyone. Everyone was united against Daesh (Islamic State). Now they are back just looking out for themselves.”
White House Mideast team holds talks with Jordanian king
- The US has been trying to rally support for projects to rescue Gaza’s economy, which has been weakened by an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, while continuing to isolate Hamas
- Jared Kushner’s team plans stops in Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. No talks with the Palestinians are scheduled, though the Americans have left the door open to meeting with them
AMMAN: President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, kicked off a swing through the Middle East on Tuesday, meeting with Jordan’s king as part of a broader effort to lay the groundwork for an expected Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
Kushner and White House envoy Jason Greenblatt held talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah, a key US ally.
A White House statement said the talks focused on US-Jordan cooperation, the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and the US efforts “to “facilitate peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
US officials have said their peace plan is near completion and could be released this summer. But it faces resistance from the Palestinians, who have cut off ties since Trump recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December and moved the US Embassy in Israel to the holy city last month. The Palestinians, who seek Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital, accuse the US of siding with Israel in the most sensitive issue of their decades-long conflict.
Kushner’s team also plans stops in Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. No talks with the Palestinians are scheduled, though the Americans have left the door open to meeting with them.
The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip for an independent state. Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Mideast war. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and Hamas militants seized control of the territory two years later.
The US has been trying to rally support for projects to rescue Gaza’s economy, which has been weakened by an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, while continuing to isolate Hamas. The US, Israel and Western allies shun Hamas as a terrorist group. Details of the plan have not been released, but Palestinians fear they will get little more than a symbolic foothold in Jerusalem. They also fear that aid to Gaza will help strengthen Hamas’ control over the territory.
Jordan also has a stake in east Jerusalem, serving as the custodian of major Muslim and Christian shrines there. Jerusalem’s walled Old City, captured and annexed by Israel in 1967, is home to Muslim, Christian and Jewish holy sites.
Abdullah has also rejected Trump’s moves in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to relinquish any part of the city.
Netanyahu traveled to Amman on Monday for a surprise meeting with Abdullah, telling the king that Israel remains committed to the status quo of the holy sites in Jerusalem.
Abdullah told Netanyahu that the fate of Jerusalem must be determined in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and that a solution should be based on establishing a Palestinian state, with east Jerusalem as its capital, on lands Israel captured in 1967.
Palestinian officials fear the Trump administration plan will leave them with a mini-state in the Gaza Strip, parts of the West Bank and a foothold in Jerusalem. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said he will reject any plan being floated by the Trump team, arguing that the US has forfeited its role as mediator because of decisions seen as pro-Israel.