In an unexpected diplomatic turn of events which underscores the seriousness of escalating tensions between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the head of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard (which last week were designated by the US as a terrorist organization), General Qassem Soleimani, arrived in Erbil on Sunday and met with Kurdistan regional president Masoud Barzani to discuss the growing crisis at a moment when Kurdish Peshmerga forces are blocking Iraqi Army access to Kirkuk oil fields and military installations.
Major General Qassem Soleimani reports directly to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and his elite force provides training and weapons to Iraqi paramilitary groups (PMU or Popular Mobilization Units) backing the Baghdad government. The meeting comes just after President Trump announced his new policy against Iran on Friday that includes designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization.
Though the Unites States officially backs the Iran-aligned Baghdad government in the Kurdistan crisis, Trump's speech could signal a monumental shift in policy for Iraq. This as Kurdistan officials and media are highlighting Iran's role in attempting to stamp out the Kurdish move for independence.
As we previously explained, last month's Kurdistan referendum pushed Iraq into the arms of Iran when the relationship between Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi and Iranian officials was at its lowest level. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (and perhaps most Iraqis) now sees in Iran the only legitimate and sincere partner Iraq can count on, and can rely on the Iranian Army and the IRGC in the case of any broader military escalation against Kurdistan, particularly in the disputed Iraqi cities, with Kirkuk now topping the list.
In spite of both Baghdad and the KRG publicly vowing to do everything possible to avoid direct military confrontation, sporadic fighting broke out Friday and early Saturday near the disputed and oil-rich Kirkuk province between Peshmerga fighters and Shia milita forces (PMU, Popular Mobilization Units) backing the central Iraqi government.
On Friday night, fighting erupted in Khurmatu - a city which lies in a disputed area claimed by Kurdistan just south of Kirkuk. Footage emerged showing the direct clashes which seemed to be short lived; it is unclear if there were any casualties, and it appears that front lines have gone quiet since late Saturday.
And now both sides are trading blame for partnering with "terrorists" with Erbil claiming Revolutionary Guard units to be among PMU forces near Kirkuk and Baghdad accusing Erbil of using PKK fighters, which it says is "a declaration of war."
Meanwhile, neocon think tanks such as the Hudson Institute have analysts in Erbil calling for US military intervention against "Iranian-backed militias". According to Hudson Institute spokesman Michael Pregent, "Part of what we're doing out here is we're presenting the administration... the administration relies on experts out here to fuel what's going on in the intelligence community." Over the weekend Pregent lamented what he called US "inaction" against Iraq's Shia militias.
Of course, Kurdistan media is only too happy to to amplify such voices:
Meanwhile, events continue to unfold at a lightning pace. Here is the latest:
- Peshmerga forces claim elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers are embedded with the Iraqi army and PMU units west of Kirkuk, while Iraq accuses Kurdish authorities of bringing PKK terrorists to Kirkuk, and says PKK involvement in Kirkuk is ‘declaration of war’.
- Kurdistan's Rudaw news reports: “The Iraqi army and the Hashd al-Shaabi are not the only state that are attacking us. We have intelligence with 100 percent accuracy that there are also the Iranian army and the Revolutionary Guards among them,” Shwan Shamerani, commander of the Peshmerga second brigade in Kirkuk, told Rudaw on Saturday.
- The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) met Sunday and agreed to “reject any demands to nullify the referendum results” as well as any preconditions to talks with Baghdad.
- Kurdish officials say Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dropped the request to cancel the results of the independence referendum as a pre-condition to launch a dialogue with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
- Baghdad officials are rejecting Kurdish media reports that the Iraqi Army gave Peshmerga a Saturday midnight or 2am deadline to withdraw or face attack, calling the reports false.
- Kurdish civilians are taking up arms: overnight, photos and videos on social media and through Kurdistan news showed Kurdish civilians in the city of Kirkuk arming themselves while chanting pro-Kurdish and martyrdom slogans; Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim appeared on city streets and gave interviews while appearing to encourage residents taking up arms.
- Some observers accuse KRG leader Barzani and his government officials of crying wolf to precipitate a crisis, saying it's in the KRG's interest to force a crisis in the hopes that the US will condemn the pro-Iranian PMU militias.
- Iraqi national media is accusing Kurdistan supporters of using sectarian language akin to ISIS Takfiri ideology; some Iraqi outlets are further accusing of the Kurdish Peshmerga of cooperation with ISIS.
- Kurdistan media is confirming Iran has completely ceased all trade into Iraqi Kurdistan Sunday with the total shutdown of three main border crossings, including the Parwezkhan, Haji Omaran, and Bashmakh crossings, though Iran's foreign ministry says nothing has changed since the end of September. Iraq's foreign ministry website is now confirming that, “It was our request to close boarder crossings."
- Ankara confirms postponement of a scheduled Turkish PM visit to Iraqi counterpart in Baghdad due to heightened tensions in Kirkuk region.
- The Governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, told Kurdistan 24 channel on Sunday that the situation in Kirkuk remains stable and export of crude oil continues to flow abroad.
- The Iraqi government is now signaling that it plans to revive a major pipeline - previously destroyed by ISIS - which would bypass Kurdistan altogether. The pipeline, which Baghdad says it will immediately take steps to repair and restore, runs from Kirkuk to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in southern Turkey. Already there are rumors that Turkey has rejected the plans.
- US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said the US is working to avoid escalation near Kirkuk on same day President Trump announced his new policy against Iran that includes designating its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization.
- US coalition aircraft were observed flying over Kirkuk with noticeably increased frequency late last week and into the weekend, likely as reconnaissance to observe the developing situation.