As Iran Gains Influence in Iraq and Middle East, US Gives Tepid Response to Israeli Warnings

When Iran joined forces with Iraq last week, only Israel stood up for the Kurds. The U.S. response has been baffling, with the Pentagon denying Iran’s involvement.

By Josh Shepherd Published on October 25, 2017

Last week, the central Iraqi government joined with Iran to retake key cities in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region. More than 30 people were killed in fighting. The Kurds have recently sought greater autonomy from Iraq. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed the conflict in northern Iraq at a Monday press conference in the Mideast nation.

“We are concerned and a bit saddened by the recent differences that have emerged between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi central government,” said Tillerson. He spoke at the office of Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi.

“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” he stated the day before, in remarks in Riyadh with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. He referred to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria also by its Arabic acronym.

In the same remarks, he said, “Any foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control of areas that had been overtaken [and] to rebuild their lives with the help of their neighbors.”

Yet his stance toward Iran differs from how the Pentagon described last week’s events. The U.S. recognizes Iran as the largest state sponsor of terrorism. Only Israel has spoken out on the grave threat Iran poses.

Official Statements in Conflict

In four days of conflict that ended Friday, Iraqi troops retook the city of Kirkuk from the Kurds. Both sides have been trained by U.S. forces and used U.S.-funded military hardware. However, several reports indicate Iranian militias played a key role. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent the past weekend lobbying foreign nations to intervene.

Speaking from Baghdad for U.S.-led coalition forces, Colonel Ryan Dillon said the army had no reports of the presence of Iranian militia units, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Only Iraqi units are “reestablishing security in and around Kirkuk.” Secretary Tillerson’s remarks seem to undercut these statements.

Stephen Mansfield, who has ties to both U.S. and Iraqi military sources, took issue with the Pentagon. “Everyone I have talked to on the ground in Iraqi Kurdistan says that Iranian militia supported Iraqi troops in the taking of Kirkuk,” he said.

Mansfield has long advocated for the beleaguered Kurdish people. Reports indicate more than 100,000 Kurdish refugees fled north after last week’s conflict.

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Joel Richardson, a filmmaker and human rights advocate who works in the Mideast, explained how Iraqi forces have linked up with Iran. “Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani was not simply ‘advising.’ He was on the ground in Kurdistan guiding the operation,” he said. An Iraqi government spokesperson confirmed this in local press reports.

Israel vocally expressed its concerns. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent the past weekend lobbying other nations to intervene. He “is certainly engaging the United States, Russia, Germany and France to stop the Kurds from being harmed,” the Israeli intelligence minister said Friday.

The Vote That Sparked a War

Uncertainty has clouded the region since the Kurdish independence vote on September 25. Despite pushback from the U.S. and others, the Kurdish government persisted in holding the vote. Kurdistan is now recognized as a semi-autonomous region of Iraq.

“The Kurds aren’t afraid of anything, because of the Peshmerga,” said one Kurdistan official. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish military forces, played a key role in driving ISIS out of Iraq. “God willing, we will achieve our goals here,” he added.

Of three million votes cast in northern Iraq, 92 percent favored Kurdish independence. This included support from Kirkuk, an oil-rich city at the heart of the conflict between Iraq and Kurdistan. The city lies between Iraq’s capital Baghdad in the south and Erbil, Kurdistan’s largest city.  In 2014, the Iraqi military vacated Kirkuk when ISIS invaded. Days later, Peshmerga forces fought off ISIS and reclaimed the city. For the past three years, Iraqi and Kurdish governments have shared oil revenue from Kirkuk.

The 2005 Iraqi Constitution mandated that the government initiate a referendum in Kirkuk. This vote, allowing city residents to choose to be part of Iraq or Kurdistan, has never taken place.

Secretary Tillerson alluded to this in his remarks on Sunday, speaking in Qatar. “The Kurdish people have a number of unfulfilled expectations, rights that were promised them under the constitution that were never delivered upon,” he admitted.

A new report by The Heritage Foundation links the rise of Iran to the 2015 nuclear deal signed by President Barack Obama.

Mansfield views the belated statement as grandstanding. “This is all fruit of a distracted U.S. government and a corrupt, grasping Iraqi central government in Baghdad,” he said.

What is Iran’s End Game?

Looking across the Middle East, Iran seems to have grand ambitions. “Today, Ayatollah Khamenei controls not only Tehran, but also the capitals of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq,” says Richardson. “Never before has the current Iranian regime had such leverage.”

U.S. military analysts confirm how Iran has been using militia units to take over land in Kurdistan. A new report by the Heritage Foundation links the rise of Iran to the 2015 nuclear deal signed by President Barack Obama.

“Iran’s growing influence is a threat to regional stability,” states the Heritage analysis. “Since sanctions on Iran were lifted in 2016, Iran has enjoyed increased financial and economic influence, which it has since invested in destabilizing many of its neighbors.”

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has long cited Iran as “the world’s foremost terrorist regime.” He praised President Trump’s effort to exit the nuclear deal.

At such a volatile time, Richardson believes the Kurds can be a stabilizing force. “For years, the Kurdish people have fought against ISIS,” he says. “They have housed and supported hundreds of thousands of refugees within their small territory. The Kurds deserve so much better.”

Mansfield sums up the recent conflict in Iraq. “It is a sad day for those who love the dream of Kurdistan,” he observes.

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