Few days after U.S. president Donald Trump announced a new, get-tough approach to Iran, one of that country’s top military commanders and the armed Shi’ite militias he supports played a key role in the seizure of an important Iraqi city from the U.S.-backed Kurds, NBC News reports quoting Iraqi, Kurdish and American officials.
Former U.S. national security officials say that the Iranian-brokered seizure of oil-rich Kirkuk by the Iraqi government and its militia partners, which heightens the risk of civil war, amounts to an embarrassing strategic blow to the U.S. at the hands of Iran.
“It is a catastrophic defeat for the United States and a fantastic victory for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, proving that Qassem Soleimani gets his way once again,” said Ali Khedery, a former senior adviser on Iraq policy in the Bush and Obama administrations.
Soleimani is head of the Iranian military’s special forces and extraterritorial operations. He commands an elite unit known as the Quds Force and has been dubbed the most powerful intelligence operative in the Middle East.
According to Kurdish and Iraqi officials, he traveled to Kirkuk last week to weigh in on the dispute between Baghdad and the Kurds over the strategically important city of Kirkuk.
Soleimani allegedly used a carrot-and-stick approach, threatening force and offering financial inducements to certain elements of a Kurdish faction whose soldiers abandoned their positions. He helped negotiate a deal under which one Kurdish faction would abandon its checkpoints and allow Iraqi government forces, backed by Iranian-supported Shi’ite militias, to take the city uncontested.
“We’re confident that Qassem Soleimani engineered, guided, directed, manipulated this deal,” Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdish representative in Washington, told NBC News.
That explains why there was so little fighting as Iraqi forces, armed with heavy weapons provided by the U.S., seized Kirkuk from the Kurds, who also carry American weapons and have been the most stalwart U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS.
Sen. John McCain warned Monday there would be “severe consequences” if Baghdad used U.S. arms against the Kurds.
“The United States provided equipment and training to the government of Iraq to fight [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)] and secure itself from external threats — not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments, which is a longstanding and valuable partner of the United States,” McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
In public, U.S. officials tried to downplay the role of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in seizing Kirkuk. Asked about it Tuesday, a Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Ryan Dillon, said, “We do not have reports of…the types of units that you had mentioned.”
However, Kurdish officials point to a Facebook video of a ceremony in which the Iraqi flag was raised on a government building. It shows two controversial figures: Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, an Iranian-backed political party; and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for acts of violence against Americans, and is considered a close adviser to Soleimani.
It appears that Iran succeeded in helping Baghdad squeeze the Kurds and retake all the disputed territories from them. U.S. President Donald Trump said his administration would not side with any party in an internal matter, Al Monitor reports.
While Iran may be buoyant about its success, the Kurdish public is angry and feels betrayed by both Soleimani and the Kurdish leadership. Anti-Iran sentiment is now growing in the Kurdistan Region, despite how the Kurds have generally seen Iran, a country that they have often turned to in times of need.
Tehran’s assistance to Baghdad in this episode of Iraq’s tumultuous history may thus ultimately hurt Tehran’s influence in the Kurdistan Region, while for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi the Shi’ite commanders may have already become too powerful to contain.