When Shiite Iraqis start attacking their own Kurds

Iraqi Shiite militias are carrying out drone attacks on Iraqi Kurds. In this way, the Gaza war leads to violence many miles away, increasing the chance of armed conflict within Iraq.

Earlier this week, a military base of the Kurdish Peshmerga was the target of drone attacks by pro-Iranian Iraqi militias. The shock among the Kurds was great: to be attacked by one of the other players within Iraq!

The Kurds may be more or less used to Turkey and Iran attacking targets in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. And also to militias of the so-called Islamic Resistance in Iraq attacking American troops stationed there.

Since the beginning of the Gaza war in October, pro-Iranian Shiite militias affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have done this more than a hundred times in both Iraq and Syria. A day after the attacks on the Peshmerga base near Pirmam, American troops at the Erbil airport managed to ward off a similar drone attack, but in previous attacks  soldiers have been injured.

Turkey continuously attacks targets in Iraqi Kurdistan that it says have some connection to the Turkish-Kurdish resistance group PKK, with at least 320 deaths last year. And Iran not only targeted Iranian-Kurdish resistance groups but also destroyed a building belonging to a Kurdish oil boss, which Tehran claimed was used for secret talks with the Israeli Mossad.


That relationship that the Shiite rulers in Iraq and Iran perceive between the Iraqi Kurds and Israel probably also plays a role in the recent drone attacks. Although no casualties occurred, the targeted base of the Gulan Special Forces is less than five kilometers from the Barzani Headquarters where former President Massoud Barzani lives and works.

The fact that the attack targeted the heart of Kurdish power – Pirmam is a Barzani stronghold – is significant in itself. The family is known to maintain good relations with Israel. The Israelis once helped them by training their Peshmerga troops, until recently a large part of Kurdish oil ended up in Israel, and that country was the only one that supported Barzani’s independence referendum in 2017.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. After fierce protests from the Barzanis (both the prime minister and the president condemned it as one of Iraqis on their own people), Iraqi Prime Minister Sudani announced a thorough investigation.

The Kurds have had a hard time in Iraq since the end of the war against ISIS in late 2017. They lost control of disputed territory (where many Kurds live), they partially lost their income from Baghdad, and can no longer export their oil. There are growing contradictions with the Iran-backed Shiite rulers in Baghdad.


On the other side of that spectrum, on the fourth anniversary of the American drone attack that killed Qassim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, at Baghdad airport a statue of the two was unveiled. At the same time, new banners with images of the Iranian general and the Iraqi militia leader appeared throughout Iraq (except Kurdistan). While only the Shiites consider them holy martyrs – and not even all of them.

The Iraqi Sunnis, who were in power under dictator Saddam Hussein, also face growing contradictions with the Shiite rulers. Recently, this cost Sunni parliamentary speaker Halbousi his position. There is a notable development within that group where Sunnis are leaning towards Israel in their aversion to Shiites in general and Iran in particular. It is notable, because under Saddam they were very anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian.

Halbousi still faces a trial because he allegedly did business with Israel, despite a law instigated by Iran that prohibits all contacts with the Jewish state. However, he surely is not the only one in Sunni Anbar to have found ways to secretly establish profitable business relations with Israel.

For the time being, the revenge of pro-Iranian groups is not yet focused on them. According to a Kurdish analyst, Shiite militias see the Kurdistan Region as a second Israel. And no matter how much they may disagree with each other on everything else,  that opinion they share, says Parwez Rahim to Rudaw.


One of the reasons for the attacks is the internal division. Mohammed Ihsan, Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London points out that while Erbil and the KDP are targets, the other Kurdish parties remain silent. They have not even condemned the drone attacks. ‘Because of the division, we don’t even have a joint team to address these violations at an international level. And Kurdish politicians in Baghdad have never been so weak.’

Ziryan Rojhelati, the director of Rudaw Research Center warns that if the Kurds do not get their internal affairs in order, they cannot handle these attacks, nor their threat and consequences.

The Kurds have become so divided since the end of the war against ISIS, their referendum, and the loss of the oil city of Kirkuk, that their joint government can hardly govern anymore. In addition, the Barzani Kurds (in Erbil and Duhok) opt for cooperation with the Turks, while the Talabani Kurds (in Sulaymania and the east of the region) have strengthened their ties with Iran and the pro-Iranian Shiites in Iraq.


An additional problem is that the Kurds still see themselves as a loyal friend of the United States – against which the militias are primarily targeting their attacks. The stakes are to finally expel the American troops, which are in Iraq at the request of Baghdad to combat ISIS. However, Kurdistan provides these troops with shelter and bases, and allowed the Americans to build a consulate outside Erbil that is larger than their embassy in Baghdad.

The Kurds have been known within Iraq for decades as rebellious, and the fact that they have participated in governments since 2003 (the current foreign minister is a Kurd) makes little difference. The unity that existed among Saddam’s victims, Kurds and Shiites, shortly after Saddam’s fall, is gone. Kurds increasingly feel attacked not only from outside (by Turkey and Iran) but also within Iraq. And that is a country of which they no longer really want to be a part.

It’s not a new situation. In the past century, the Kurds in Iraq have fought a lot. With the increased tension as a result of the Gaza war, this has suddenly become an issue again. This adds to the possibility that Gaza will now lead to another front, many miles away, and a new civil war in Iraq.

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