Iran ratcheting up assaults on Iraqi Kurds

Iran ratcheting up assaults on Iraqi Kurds

One of the most conflict-affected areas in Iraq is currently the northern Kurdish region. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) recently pointed out that the region faces a humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands of people have been displaced. Many are pointing fingers at Iraqi forces for launching attacks in an attempt to gain control over the Kurdish region from the Peshmerga, the KRG’s principal military force. 
But given the state of Iraqi forces, they would be unlikely to be able to conduct such assaults without the help of another key player: Iran-backed Shiite militias, specifically the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). 
The PMU, comprising more than 40 Iraqi militias with nearly 150,000 fighters, was established with the help of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and enjoys a warm relationship with the Quds Force and its leader Qassem Soleimani. The Iran-backed Shiite militias have enabled Iraqi forces to make incursions into the Kurdish region and take control of Kirkuk. 
In fact, Iranian leaders have publicly and repeatedly threatened Kurdish leaders to submit to Iraqi forces. For example, a senior Iranian military commander recently warned Kurdish leaders to pull out of Kirkuk or face an onslaught. In addition, after recent meetings between Turkish and Iranian leaders, Tehran and Ankara pledged to jointly act against Iraqi Kurdistan, where Iran is expanding its influence. 
There are several reasons for Iran’s interventions in Iraqi Kurdistan. Firstly, it wants to keep all of Iraq under the control of its ally, the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, as well as Shiite militias, which seek to advance Tehran’s interests.  
Secondly, Iran has a strategic interest in dominating, controlling and suppressing Iraq’s Kurds in order to prevent the empowerment of its own. The recent independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan alarmed Tehran and ratcheted up its threats and assaults against the Kurds.
The third reason is linked to ethnicity. As an ethnic minority, the Kurds have long been viewed as a monolithic group by Tehran, and have been systematically discriminated against and subjugated. The fourth reason is financial. Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys natural resources, specifically valuable oil fields. This has become another catalyst for the repeated raids of government forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias. 

Secondly, Iran has a strategic interest in dominating, controlling and suppressing Iraq’s Kurds in order to prevent the empowerment of its own. The recent independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan alarmed Tehran and ratcheted up its threats and assaults against the Kurds.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

The fifth factor relates to religion. Iran-backed Shiite militias continue to incite sectarian conflict with Sunnis as a divide-and-rule strategy. Many Kurds are being targeted simply because they are Sunni. 
Checkpoints set up by Shiite militias are ubiquitous. The aim is to more easily control and monitor the Kurds, and prevent their movement, assembly and relocation to other areas. Checkpoints are reportedly being used by the militias for financial gain, such as illegally charging drivers and people fees.
To counter the increasing power and interventions of Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraqi Kurdistan, the US and regional powers should economically and politically pressure Baghdad. The international community ought to hold Iraqi forces and militias accountable for the ongoing human rights violations against the Kurds.
 
  • Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh
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