Erbil attack a warning to Iraqi Kurds, not the US, say Shia commanders
The recent missile attack on northern Iraq’s Erbil was aimed at “disciplining the Kurdish authorities” and not meant as a message to the United States, commanders of Iran-backed armed groups told Middle East Eye.
However, the commanders insisted they are unaware of who exactly carried out the 15 February rocket attack on the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
'The message is that the Shia factions can undermine the security of the Kurdistan region'
- Kurdish official
Iraqi authorities say 11 missiles targeted al-Harir military base, which hosts US troops, and Erbil international airport, killing a contractor and wounding nine others, including an American solider.
An unknown armed group called the "Guardians of Blood'' claimed responsibility for the attack via a Telegram channel close to the Iranian-backed Shia factions, saying the perpetrators launched 24 missiles 7km from the Harir base, "accurately hitting their targets".
In another statement issued the next day, the group said the attack targeted the "American occupation" forces that will not be safe "even if they transfer their bases" to Kurdistan.
It also threatened Kurdish politicians who have “welcomed” the Turkish occupation of Iraqi lands, as Ankara wages an offensive against the PKK militant group along the northern border.
The raid came at a time of rising tensions in northern Iraq, as competing Shia, Kurdish and federal forces seek to establish control in Sinjar, an area of unparalleled strategic advantage where Iranian-backed groups have been marginalised in favour of the regular Iraqi authorities.
Unsurprisingly, Erbil’s Kurdish authorities are pointing the finger at these Shia groups for the rocket attack.
Though saying nothing openly, officials and Shia commanders told MEE that behind the scenes conversations are implicating Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a powerful faction that has occasionally attacked US assets in Iraq despite an unofficial truce between Iran-backed groups and Washington.
“Asaib Ahl al-Haq believes that there is security cooperation between Baghdad, Erbil and Ankara, and therefore they must be hit [in Erbil],” a senior Kurdish official told MEE, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The message is that the Shia factions can undermine the security of the Kurdistan region."
Despite their endorsement of this message, every Shia commander spoken to by MEE denied any of their groups launched the missiles themselves. They also underlined that the truce with the US remains intact.
“None of our known factions carried out this attack. There are other tools linked to the PKK that carried it out, but it fulfilled its intended purpose,” a prominent commander of an Iranian-backed Shia armed faction told MEE.
"The Iranian orders have not changed regarding attacking the American forces, and the Iranians are still keen to maintain calm with the Americans until they see how the new administration will act,” he added.
“We are committed to the truce between the two parties, but this does not prevent us from acting when it comes to the return of the Kurdish-Turkish expansion on Iraqi lands.”
Embarrassing Abu Fadak
Four days before the Erbil attack, “Abu Fadak” Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi, chief of staff of the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary umbrella group that includes most Iran-backed factions, visited his fighters deployed in western Nineveh, northern Kirkuk and elsewhere in the north.
To some, that has given the impression that the attack was launched on his orders. But a senior Hashd al-Shaabi commander close to Abu Fadak told MEE that this attack instead was a great embarrassment to him.
'We do not really know who carried it out. Even the Iranians themselves told us that they were not aware of this attack and did not plan for it'
- Senior Hashd al-Shaabi commander
"Whatever the identity of the group that carried out this attack, it is definitely an unfriendly group to us," the commander said.
"This attack embarrassed Abu Fadak a lot, especially in front of the Kurdish leaders, who he has good relations with. We do not really know who carried it out. Even the Iranians themselves told us that they were not aware of this attack and did not plan for it,” he added.
"Abu Fadak says that if he had known that this attack would take place, he would not have visited the area at this particular time. It is stupid for a commander with the weight of Abu Fadak to visit an area and then order an attack. This is not his method."
Clues to the source of the enmity that resulted in the Erbil attack can be found in the conversation surrounding the likely site of the rockets’ launch.
Overwhelming evidence indicates that Katyusha rockets were used in the raid, which have a maximum range of 8.5km. Yet the Kurdish region’s interior ministry said the missiles that hit al-Harir were launched from the road linking Erbil and the town of al-Kuwayr, 45 km northwest of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s capital.
Nechirvan Barazani, the KRG’s president, has subsequently urged Baghdad to allow Kurdish security forces to manage affairs in such disputed areas, where federal troops and Hashd al-Shaabi fighters are deployed and the KRG’s peshmerga have been forced out.
By suggesting the rockets were fired from al-Kuwayr, the Kurdish authorities implicitly blamed one of the Iranian-backed armed factions deployed in the areas north of Kirkuk and western Nineveh.
“This area is under the control of the Hashd al-Shaabi factions, specifically Asaib Ahl al-Haq,” the senior Kurdish official told MEE.
Yet Major General Yahya Rasul, spokesman for the Commander-in-Chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces, has corroborated the Guardians of Blood’s own version of events, telling reporters the launch site was 5km from Erbil and the region’s authorities "must address this security breach".
“We were surprised the next day [after the attack] that the Kurdish leaders started talking about Sinjar and the disputed areas, and the demands to return to the joint administration of these areas,” an Iraqi federal official told MEE.
“The attack was launched from inside Erbil, so what is the relationship between the disputed areas, Sinjar and the issue?”
Sinjar, a town located near Iraq’s borders with Turkey and Syria, is famous as the site of the Islamic State’s 2014 mass killings and abductions known as the Yazidi genocide. The region is also one of the most strategic places in Iraq.
It is the highest region in the country, and closest to Beirut, Damascus and Israel. Whoever controls it secures the land route between Tehran and Damascus on one hand, and logistical supply lines between southeastern Turkey and northern Syria on the other.
Saddam Hussein used this area as a base to launch his missiles that targeted Tel Aviv in 1991, and potentially rockets could be used to do the same again.
All the regional and international conflicting parties in Iraq, including Iran, Turkey, the United States, France and Britain, seek to impose their control over the region, Iraqi officials and commanders of armed groups told MEE.
On top of those powers’ spies and representatives, operatives of the PKK, a Kurdish militant group waging a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state, and the YPG, an affiliated Syrian militia, have been found. So too have the KRG’s peshmerga security forces, Shia factions and the Sinjar Protection Units (YPS), a Yazidi militia.
While Sinjar was awash with armed groups, the 400,000 people displaced from the area have been unable to return.
But in October, a deal was reached to pull Iranian-backed groups from the area, expel the PKK and its allies such as the YPS and return the displaced. It was an arrangement that suited Iraqi federal and KRG forces, but left the Shia factions and Kurdish militants disgruntled.
By pushing the PKK towards the border, it also angered Ankara, Iraqi federal and local officials told MEE.
“The Sinjar agreement was not comfortable for the Hashd al-Shaabi factions, nor the Iranians, the Kurds, or the Turks,” a senior federal official involved in concluding the Sinjar agreement told MEE.
“Turkey wants us to fight the PKK and its allies the Sinjar Protection Units, while Kurds who are now close to Turkey want to go back to govern Sinjar.”
On 10 February, Turkey launched a ferocious new military campaign against the PKK in the Qandil mountains along the northern border.
It gave the Iran-backed factions a golden opportunity to reassert themselves in the area around Sinjar under the pretext of confronting any Turkish attempts to invade, despite Turkey being 250 km away from Sinjar.
Three Hashd al-Shaabi combat regiments were dispatched the next day and deployed on the top of Mount Sinjar and its western and eastern slopes, Shia commanders told MEE. With the arrival of the reinforcements, the number of Hashd forces deployed in the area has reached 15,000 fighters, according to a local Yazidi commander operating under the paramilitary’s umbrella.
Abu Fadek’s presence that day was an attempt to convey the message that they were willing to confront Turkish forces, if need be.
A senior commander of an Iran-backed Shia armed faction told MEE that the October Sinjar agreement implicitly grants the area to the KRG authorities, who he claimed would allow IS and Turkish forces to operate there unchecked.
“The [Baghdad] government is unstable in its positions with the Kurds, so we had to take the initiative and send forces there,” he said.
“Sinjar is a strategic location that cannot be forfeited. We will not allow the Kurds or Turks to control the region, and if they try to storm it, we will teach them a lesson.”
The tensions over Sinjar and the Erbil attack are deeply intertwined.
On Thursday, Iraqi President Barham Salih met with Abu Fadek. The Hashd al-Shaabi released a statement saying the meeting was arranged to discuss the paramilitary’s deployment in Sinjar and the security situation around Kirkuk.
However, the goal of the meeting was “an attempt by Salih to find out the identity of the perpetrators” of the Erbil attack, the Hashd al-Shaabi commander close to Abu Fadak told MEE.
“Barham and Abu Fadak have a very good relationship. Barham asked to meet him to get clarification about the attack. Abu Fadak told him explicitly that the Hashd al-Shaabi factions had nothing to do with the attack.”
The commander added that Abu Fadek told Salih that he knew nothing about this so-called “Guardians of Blood” group.
Whatever the identity of the perpetrators of the attack on Erbil, the very fact they appear to have been able to operate just 5-7km from a military base and the airport mean some serious questions have to be asked on the Kurdish side, as well as of the Shia armed factions.
Kurdish officials told MEE that it is still too early to be sure who was behind the attack and that they do not exclude the possibility of "corrupt" Kurdish figures being involved in exchange for money for the benefit of this or that political party or armed group.
Yet, the Shia factions’ denial of direct involvement does not mean that they do not know the identity of the perpetrators, nor does it rule out their planning it.
“We did not carry out the attack, but we are happy with it and are benefiting from it,” a senior commander of an Iranian-backed Shia faction told MEE, adding that the aim was to discipline Masoud Barzani, head of the ruling Kurdish party.
"The Kurdish authorities must respect themselves, know their size, and not aspire to exceed their capabilities.”