Earlier this month, American forces in Iraq raided an Iranian facility in the Kurdish city of Irbil. Documents and computer files seized in that raid indicate that the facility was being used by members of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in an operation to provide money and weapons to various Shia militia groups in Iraq. The weapons include advanced improvised explosive devices, mortars, newer generation rocket propelled grenades and shoulder-fired surface to air missiles. The advanced IED’s have already killed American troops, and mortars allegedly traceable to Iran have been used in attacks on Sunni areas of Baghdad.
Is the IRGC operating in Kurdish northern Iraq? Of course they are - they’ve been there since at least 1991. Soon after the Iraqi defeat in Kuwait, IRGC officers conducted clandestine and covert operations in the southern Shia area and the northern Kurdish area, and have been active there ever since.
The raid earlier this month on the Iranian facility causes problems for the Kurdish Regional Government and its autonomous region in northern Iraq. Since the Iranians claim that the facility was an Iranian consulate that had been in operation in the Kurdish enclave for years, it created a diplomatic incident. Having served in northern Iraq, including Irbil, and observing Iranian operations, I am skeptical that the facility was, in fact, a consulate. Since the raid, Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, himself a Kurd, has demanded that the United States release the five “consular officials.”
The incident highlights the conflict the Kurds face. They are part of Iraq, but are not Arabs like 80 percent of the population. For almost the entire period that the Baath Party ruled Iraq, they were the target of a genocidal campaign aimed at eradicating their separate identity. During that time, the Kurds – at times out of necessity – developed a close relationship with the Iranians. When Saddam Hussein’s forces attacked the Kurdish village of Halabja with chemical weapons, when the Iraqi army killed thousands of Kurds in the Anfal campaign, the Iranians became the Kurds’ only ally. Iran provided refuge to hundreds of thousands of Kurds, creating a bond that is hard to break and hard to ignore. When no one else seemed to care about their plight, Iran opened its borders to them.
Now that Saddam is gone and the Kurds have established an autonomous region in the north, the Iranians are exploiting that past relationship. After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the Iranians greatly expanded their presence in the Kurdish north as well as with their fellow Shia Muslims in the south.
The Iranian presence is not a good thing for the American efforts in Iraq. It also presents problems for the Kurds, easily America’s best allies among the Iraqis. The Kurds are balancing their close relationship with America against their close relationship with the Iranians. When more raids like the one in Irbil occur in the future – and they will, given new orders to U.S. forces to no longer “catch and release” Iranian operatives, but to capture and kill them – the Kurds will have to decide which relationship means more. You can’t have it both ways. Just like the Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki, they have to decide if they are with us or with the Iranians.