The Axis of Irbil

Posted by Cutler on January 20, 2007
Iran, Iraq

When the US detained several groups of Iranian officials in late December and mid-January, the whole affair seemed to simply be part of a larger media campaign of anti-Iranian rhetoric from the Bush administration. The raid that resulted in the mid-January detention of five Iranians coincided with Bush’s January 10, 2007 speech in which he asserted,

Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We’ll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

The raids that led to the mid-January detentions were undoubtedly part of the larger media campaign that also included bellicose remarks from Vice President Cheney.

More recently, however, Eli Lake at the Right Zionist New York Sun has raised the ideological stakes with reporting on the detainees now being dubbed The Irbil Five by the editorial page of that paper.

Lake’s report includes two new claims about the Irbil Five. The first claim is that there is–surprise!–factional fighting within the Bush administration about how to deal with the Iranians.

The American government is deadlocked on the issue of whether to allow five Iranians captured last Wednesday in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil to return home, according to three administration officials…

On one side of the bureaucratic debate are the CIA and the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs Bureau. According to one administration official familiar with the debate, they argue that the prolonged detention of the suspected Quds force operatives will provoke a further escalation with Iran and scuttle the Iraqi government’s plan to help secure Baghdad with American soldiers. On the other side of the debate are the Pentagon’s special operations office, the Marines, and the Army — which have pleaded that the captured Iranians are too great a danger to American forces to return to Iran.

This split is interesting, if not altogether surprising. If true, it tends to confirm the idea that much of the uniformed military brass in the US is decided hawkish about Iran. Lake doesn’t mention Cheney as a player in this factional fight. That seems unlikely.

But Lake drops a bomb toward the end of his report:

One intelligence official who has seen much of the early reporting on the Irbil raid said yesterday that it linked the Iranians to Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army operations in Kirkuk as well as anti-Kurdish operations from Ansar al-Sunna. Ansar al-Sunna is an outgrowth of the defeated Ansar al-Islam, a Qaeda-affiliated Sunni organization that tried to assassinate one of Iraq’s deputy prime ministers, Barham Salih.

This reference to Sadr’s role in Kirkuk raises some very serious issues that I discussed in a prior post: Sadr is no friend of the Kurds.

The idea of an alliance between Iran, Sadr’s Mahdi army, and Ansar al-Sunna is an extremely explosive charge. It appears to be linked to other related accusations from the Right Zionist Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A recent report by Soner Cagaptay and Daniel Fink presses the Sadr-Sunni link.

On January 14, in a rare show of unity, Sunni and Shiite Arab, Turkmen, and Christian Iraqis gathered at a conference in Ankara to denounce Kurdish plans to incorporate Kirkuk, the capital of Iraq’s at-Tamim province, into the Kurdish region…

Muqtada al-Sadr has not wasted any time in organizing Shiite Arabs expelled by the Kurds. The Iraqi constitution fails to address what is to happen to Shiite families settled by Saddam in Kirkuk—most of whom have now lived in Kirkuk for more than a generation, and have no homes to return to—as well as those families who came to Kirkuk as labor migrants. These Shiite Arabs expelled by the Kurds have accepted a helping hand from Sadr and now support him. Meanwhile, Shiite Turkmens alienated by the main Turkmen party, the Iraqi Turkmen Front, whose leadership has been traditionally comprised of Sunni Turkmens (around half of Iraqi Turkmens are Shiites) have also been recruited by Sadr. The Shiite militias first appeared to confront growing Kurdish control over Kirkuk with the arrival of Sadr’s Mahdi Army in 2004. Their activity began with intimidating Shiite residents into remaining in Kirkuk. This has since escalated into attacks against Kurds. Neighborhood Shiite groups are also responsible for perpetrating acts of violence against Kurds.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda affiliates such as Ansar al-Sunna are known to be helping and recruiting Sunni Arabs and even traditionally secular Sunni Turkmens—most of whom have been expelled from Kirkuk by the Kurds. Kirkuk has witnessed increased al-Qaeda presence. The majority of the twenty suicide bombings perpetrated in Kirkuk from July to October 2006 are presumably the work of al-Qaeda affiliates.

While Iraq has experienced increased sectarian tension between Shiite and Sunni groups since the February 22, 2006, bombing of the Askariya shrine, ironically, in Kirkuk, these groups have been united in their opposition to Kurdish political designs for the city.

The whole idea of Sadrist links with Iran have always seemed complex to me. He had early support from Ayatollah Haeri in the Iranian city of Qom, but that relationship has seemed rocky at times.

Nevertheless, if I were going to give any credence to the idea of a broad Sadrist network that includes Iran it would seem at least as likely that the chief target of that alliance would be Kurds in Kirkuk as it would be Sunnis in Baghdad.

Turkey has made no secret of its opposition to Kurdish control of Kirkuk.

Does Iran really fear the Kurds?

Many Kurdish leaders appear to have relatively good relations with Iran.

Within the US, however, there are Iran hawks who are certainly hoping to drive a wedge between Iran and the Kurds.

See, for example, a recent Jamestown Foundation report that includes a glowing profile of the Party for Freedom and Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), the anti-Iranian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

As the confrontation between Iran and the West escalates, international attention has increasingly focused on Tehran’s internal vulnerability. In particular, analysts point out that Iran’s “imperial” past has resulted in ethnic Persians—who make up scarcely half of Iran’s 80 million people—holding disproportionate power, wealth and influence. If the crisis with Iran escalates further, Iran’s neglected and often resentful Kurdish, Azeri and Arab minorities may increasingly play a key role in global events. At the forefront will likely be Iran’s Kurds, and chief among them PJAK, which for nearly a decade has worked to replace Iran’s theocratic government with a federal and democratic system, respectful of human rights, sexual equality and freedom of expression.

Are the tensions in Kirkuk insufficient to ignite tensions between Sadrists and the Kurds? If so, one “creative” way to get something going might be to send Kurdish forces to Baghdad as part of a crackdown on Sadr City.

Thankfully, nobody would ever dream of anything like that!

My question: is there a strategic aim here, apart from universal chaos?

The “looming crisis” of Kirkuk would tend to isolate the Kurds against an alliance that could united Iraqi Shiites, Iraqi Sunni Arabs, Turkey, Iran, all the major countries of the Sunni Arab bloc.

This can hardly be a recipe for Kurdish success.

Perhaps it is intended to foster Iraqi and regional unity, albeit over the bloodied “corpse” of Kurdish Kirkuk.

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