Why was Iraqi Kurdistan’s Irbil subjected to another rocket attack?

A home damaged in a rocket attack on US-led forces in and near Erbil International Airport. (Reuters)
A home damaged in a rocket attack on US-led forces in and near Erbil International Airport. (Reuters)
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Updated 19 February 2021

Why was Iraqi Kurdistan’s Irbil subjected to another rocket attack?

Why was Iraqi Kurdistan’s Irbil subjected to another rocket attack?
  • Death of a civilian contractor and injuries suffered by others at US base ring high-level alarms
  • Fingers pointed at Iran-backed Shiite militias as obscure group claims responsibility for the attack

IRBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN: With the evidence available, independent analysts are hesitant to pin the blame on any specific group for Monday’s rocket strike on Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. But what they all agree on is that both the timing and nature of the attack, which principally targeted a base in the city’s airport hosting US military personnel, strongly suggest that it was the handiwork of one or more Iran-backed militias.

According to reports, a volley of approximately 14 rockets hit Irbil international airport and nearby residential areas, killing a civilian contractor and injuring up to nine people. Clips of the incident quickly flooded social media and prompted an extended debate on Twitter among defense analysts over the correct course of US action in the situation.

David Pollock, Bernstein Fellow at the Washington Institute, pointed out that the Saraya Awliya Al-Dam, the self-proclaimed Shiite militia that has claimed responsibility for the attack, has threatened via the Telegram messaging app more operations targeting what it calls the “American occupation” of Iraq.

“Iran has officially denounced the attack, but that’s just the usual propaganda,” Pollock told Arab News while emphasizing the fact that the culprits have yet to be identified. He added: “The Iranians may actually support (the attack) to pressure the US to leave Iraq, in line with all their other threats.”

The autonomous Kurdistan Region has long been viewed as a distinctly stable and secure area compared with other parts of Iraq. However, incidents such as the Feb. 15 attack could change international perception of the region.




A volley of approximately 14 rockets hit Irbil international airport and nearby residential areas, killing a civilian contractor and injuring up to nine people. (Reuters)

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is all too aware of this possibility. “Our concern is primarily due to the fact that Kurdistan is not used to this kind of attacks and instability,” Safeen Dizayee, head of the Foreign Relations Department of the KRG, told Arab News.

“Kurdistan has been renowned for its stability; coexistence; economic and political development; and prosperity. Therefore, when such incidents occur, it is of concern to the community, to the government, and to all those who live here, and also to our friends elsewhere.”

Dizayee asserted that the relevant department of the KRG will “continue to provide utmost security and will work hard to find the culprits and perpetrators of this attack, as well as those who we believe are responsible for the last couple of attacks.”

At the same time, he stressed the importance of stronger cooperation between KRG and federal security forces for the prevention of such incidents in the future.

Significant security gaps between the federal forces’ positions and the Kurdish Peshmerga in disputed territories, such as Kirkuk and Sinjar, have been known to exist since late 2017. Daesh and other actors, whom Dizayee described as “loose guns who behave outside the control of the state,” have exploited these gaps.

Among the actors in question are militias that operate under the broad umbrella of the Iraqi state-sanctioned and predominantly Shiite Hashd Al-Shaabi (PMF), but whose loyalty primarily is to Iran and its interests in Iraq. These groups have used attacks against American troops repeatedly in recent years ostensibly as a pressure tactic to force a US military pullout from Iraq.




Some security analysts have questioned why the US has reacted angrily to the targeting of its forces, yet has neither announced nor taken any retaliatory action. (Reuters)

Pollock believes that tensions in the security gaps between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the PMF in “seam” areas around Kirkuk and Sinjar are “probably part of the story.”

“It’s noteworthy that many high-level statements from various KRG, UN and Iraq government officials now repeat calls for better security coordination in those places,” he said.

Some security analysts have questioned why the US has reacted angrily to the targeting of its forces, yet has neither announced nor taken any retaliatory action. But Pollock says that in any event, the Irbil attack will serve “to strengthen US resolve to stay in Iraq, including Kurdistan.”

His views are echoed in part by Nicholas Heras, director of government relations at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington D.C., who believes it is “within character” for Iran-backed groups to want to test US resolve through attacks.

In addition, Heras suspects that the latest attack could be a warning from the powerful Iraqi Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, which has targeted American troops in Iraq in the past, to the KRG against cooperating with Turkey.

“How much Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) controls these shadowy militias, or even a group like Kata’ib Hezbollah, is a point of strong disagreement among analysts,” he told Arab News.




Osamah Golpy thinks the fact that the rockets were launched from a location close to Irbil and struck residential areas for the first time suggests that Iran-backed militias believe that US military personnel in Iraq are increasingly relocating to the Kurdistan region. (Reuters)

He said some analysts believe that following the US elimination of the Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, the IRGC has had trouble keeping the shadowy armed groups under its control.

But others think that these groups are merely a front for Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, providing them the “plausible deniability” they need to harm US interests in Iraq with impunity.

Still other analysts believe that “the ecosystem of Kata’ib Hezbollah groups in Iraq is all just different heads of the hydra, with the body being the IRGC,” Heras told Arab News.

Osamah Golpy, a senior editor at the Rudaw Media Network in Irbil, says that while Iran may not have directly orchestrated the attack on Irbil, this is something it wanted to happen. He cites a Kurdish proverb that he says sums up Tehran’s position: “I wish it happens (I wholeheartedly want it to happen), but not at my hands.”

He pointed out that a media network close to the IRGC recently released a video clip with an actor depicting Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani as helplessly weak in the face of Daesh’s threat to Irbil in 2014, only to be saved by a heroic Soleimani. The KRG has denounced the video.

Tehran claimed that that the video did not necessarily represent its view, even though Iran’s media is strictly censored and heavily controlled by the regime.

“I believe we should look at the attacks within the same framework,” Golpy told Arab News. The scenario he describes is one in which Iran’s authorities officially deny having any links to the groups launching the rockets even though they are aware of who they are and their intentions.

Golpy also does not rule out the possibility that Iran is directing some of these groups’ actions through the Quds Force, which is one of five IRGC branches specializing in unconventional warfare and military intelligence operations.

In his opinion, the fact that the rockets were launched from a location close to Irbil and struck residential areas for the first time suggests that Iran-backed militias believe that US military personnel in Iraq are increasingly relocating to the Kurdistan region.

Put simply, Golpy says, the militias are seeking to “create an atmosphere here in Irbil similar to the one they created in Baghdad.”

Twitter: @pauliddon


Don’t let pandemic distract from fight against extremism: Experts 

Don’t let pandemic distract from fight against extremism: Experts 
Updated 1 min 50 sec ago

Don’t let pandemic distract from fight against extremism: Experts 

Don’t let pandemic distract from fight against extremism: Experts 
  • Pro-Iran Shiite militias pose ‘major’ Mideast threat: Ex-UK envoy to Saudi Arabia
  • Emirati ambassador: UAE has found success by listening to aspirations of country’s youth

LONDON: The UK and Middle Eastern countries should not allow the coronavirus pandemic and its restrictions to distract from the importance of countering extremism, a group of experts said on Monday.

At an event hosted by the UK’s Emirates Society and attended by Arab News, Sir John Jenkins, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said: “The danger of the pandemic is that it distracts our attention (from extremism), and weakens the ability of governments and societies to deal with it and address it honestly and intelligently.”

He added that the appeal of extremist ideologies “hasn’t gone away,” and that all governments need to remain focused on this issue. 

“One of the major threats to the Middle East is the spread of Shiite Islamist militias that have a degree of loyalty not simply to Iran, but to the supreme leader himself — they’re Khameneists, basically,” he said.

“We see it with Hezbollah in Lebanon, we see it in Syria, and we see it extraordinarily in Iraq. The hollowing out of state capacity in large parts of the Middle East, in favor of these predatory militias, is a major long-term threat,” he added. “The key for governments is not to lose focus of all of this.”

John Woodcock, the UK special envoy for countering violent extremism, echoed those concerns over the persistent threat of violent extremism.

“There has been a danger in the last 12 months that national focuses haven’t been on the issue of extremism,” he said.

“I think that’s potentially a far greater issue for the years ahead because of the huge resource pressure that countries will come under in the post-pandemic economic recovery.”

This financial pressure, Woodcock warned, could trickle down to multilateral agencies working in conflict and post-conflict zones, potentially hampering their ability to carry out work that acts as a preventative buffer to the allures of extremism.

His concerns appear to already be playing out in the UK, amid reports on Monday that Britain will cut its aid budget to Yemen, which is embroiled in a civil war involving pro-Iran Houthi militias.

Omar Ghobash, the UAE’s ambassador to France, said his country recognized early that religious extremism presented a real challenge that demanded attention, and was successful in tackling it.

In the UAE, “we saw that there was a very powerful narrative within our own Islamic community that was pulling kids into warzones and into acts of violence,” he added.

“This recognition happened some time ago,” he said, but after the 9/11 attacks “this became much clearer to us.”

To counter this, the UAE “focused on young people in particular and what aspirations they have, asking how we as a government can provide them with the means to achieve those aspirations,” Ghobash added.

The UAE “has continued to develop sensitivity to what young people want to do and what they can do,” he said.

“The approach of the leadership has been to invest in intellectual, legal and physical infrastructure to provide uplifting visions of where the country and its people can go.”

The launch of the Mars Hope probe, Ghobash said, presents just one example to the country’s youth of how Emiratis can operate internationally, bypassing cultural or religious differences.

Initiatives like that, he added, encourage the country’s youth to focus on “improving the lot of mankind, not just our own neighborhood.”


Suffering of Syria detainees ‘unimaginable’: UN panel

Suffering of Syria detainees ‘unimaginable’: UN panel
Updated 01 March 2021

Suffering of Syria detainees ‘unimaginable’: UN panel

Suffering of Syria detainees ‘unimaginable’: UN panel
  • Almost every major party that has controlled territory in Syria since 2011 has committed detention-related violations and abuses
  • Report stressed that detainees continued to be mistreated in notorious detention facilities even as the conflict approached its 11th year

GENEVA: Thousands of civilians have been subjected to “unimaginable suffering” including torture, sexual violence and death in detention during a decade of conflict in Syria, United Nations investigators said on Monday.
Tens of thousands of civilians who were detained are unaccounted for, with no trace of their whereabouts, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria found.
The three-member panel’s report, based on more than 2,500 interviews conducted over 10 years, carried out investigations into more than 100 detention facilities.
It found that almost every major party that has controlled territory in Syria since 2011 has committed detention-related violations and abuses.
“Hundreds of thousands of family members have a right to the truth about their loved ones’ fate,” said commission chair Paulo Pinheiro.
“This is a national trauma that needs to be urgently addressed by action from the parties and the international community.”
The report stressed that detainees continued to be mistreated in notorious detention facilities even as the conflict approached its 11th year.
“These detainees have endured unimaginable suffering,” the commission said.
“This has been happening with the knowledge and acquiescence of the governments who have supported the different parties to the conflict.
“The fate of tens of thousands of civilians who were forcibly disappeared by Syrian government forces, many nearly a decade ago, remains unknown. Many are presumed to have died or been executed.”
Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd said parties to the conflict had, with few exceptions, failed to investigate their own forces, with the focus seemingly on concealing rather than probing crimes committed in detention facilities.
The report said that men, women, boys and girls detained by government or pro-government forces were subjected to inhuman treatment and torture, including rape.
“At least 20 different horrific methods of torture used by the government of Syria have been extensively documented,” the report said.
“These include administering electric shocks, the burning of body parts, pulling off nails and teeth, mock executions, folding detainees into a car tire and crucifying or suspending individuals from one or two limbs for prolonged periods, often in combination with severe beating.”
The authors called for all parties in the conflict to stop violations, immediately release certain categories of detainee and allow independent monitoring of detention facilities.
Its findings will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on March 11.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria was mandated by the council to investigate and record all violations of international law since March 2011 in the country.
The commission has repeatedly accused the various sides of war crimes and in some cases crimes against humanity.
Since Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011, more than 387,000 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes.


UN launching donor conference amid fears of famine in Yemen

UN launching donor conference amid fears of famine in Yemen
Updated 19 min 35 sec ago

UN launching donor conference amid fears of famine in Yemen

UN launching donor conference amid fears of famine in Yemen
  • The UN warned that more than 16 million people in Yemen would go hungry this year
  • More than six years of war has created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster

CAIRO: The United Nations launched an appeal Monday for countries to fund its response to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where more than six years of war has created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
At a pledging virtual conference, co-hosed by Sweden and Switzerland, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will appeal for $3.85 billion this year to address the impoverished Arab country’s dire needs in the country.
It is unlikely a response from donors will meet UN goals, given that the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating consequences have hit economies around the globe.
Yemen’s war started in 2014 when the Iran-backed Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north. The Saudi-led, US-backed coalition intervened months later to restore the internationally recognized government.
The conflict has killed some 130,000 people and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Half of Yemen’s health facilities are shuttered or destroyed, and 4 million Yemenis have been driven from their homes. The coronavirus pandemic, cholera epidemics and severe malnutrition among children have led to thousands of additional deaths.
Separately, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned that more than 16 million people in Yemen would go hungry this year, with already some half a million living in famine-like conditions.
Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who is on a week-long visit to Yemen, warned on Monday that aid groups were “catastrophically” underfunded and overstretched.
Last year’s UN pledging conference, raised $1.35 billion — a billion dollars short of what aid agencies said they needed. In 2019, the UN received around $3.6 billion in international donations for its campaign, short of its $4.2 billion goal.


UAE records 2,526 new coronavirus cases, 17 new deaths

UAE records 2,526 new coronavirus cases, 17 new deaths
Updated 01 March 2021

UAE records 2,526 new coronavirus cases, 17 new deaths

UAE records 2,526 new coronavirus cases, 17 new deaths

DUBAI: The UAE's Ministry of Health announced 2,526 new coronavirus cases on Monday, bringing the total number of recorded cases in the country to 394,050.

The ministry said the infected individuals are from various nationalities, are in a stable condition, and receiving the necessary care, in a statement released on state-run news agency WAM.

It also announced 17 deaths due to COVID-19 complications, bringing the total number of deaths in the country to 1,238.

An additional 1,107 individuals had fully recovered from COVID-19, bringing the total number of recoveries to 382,332.

The ministry said it conducted 175,033 additional COVID-19 tests over the past 24 hours.


Syria and Israel: secret negotiations over Golan for severing Iranian, Hezbollah ties

Syria and Israel: secret negotiations over Golan for severing Iranian, Hezbollah ties
Updated 01 March 2021

Syria and Israel: secret negotiations over Golan for severing Iranian, Hezbollah ties

Syria and Israel: secret negotiations over Golan for severing Iranian, Hezbollah ties
  • Officials involved in the negotiations confirmed to that the agreement “went further than any previous document”
  • Syria has not made any official statements regarding the talks

DUBAI: Syria and Israel were on the brink of signing a peace agreement in February 2011, right before the Arab Spring protests broke out in several states, newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported.
Officials involved in the negotiations confirmed to the outlet that the agreement “went further than any previous document,” and included Syria’s pledge to sever “military ties” with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon and “neutralizing” any Israeli threat so they could reclaim the Golan heights after Israel occupied them in the 1967 war.
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu negotiations were mediated by American envoy Frederic Hof, the report added. The late Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem and legal advisor Riad Daoudi and former US Ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford joined at least two meetings.
Asharq Al-Awsat reported that at the time the then US President Barack Obama and his then former Vice President Joe Biden, current president, were aware of these secret negotiations, and that ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was heavily involved in them too. 
Syria has not made any official statements regarding the talks, but has repeatedly expressed commitment to restoring sovereignty over Golan heights while maintaining the “strategic relationship with Iran.”