Iran strikes across border into Iraqi Kurdistan

A border dispute between Iran and the Kurdish region of Iraq underwent a significant escalation this week, as Iranian Revolutionary Guards crossed the border to engage with guerrillas of the PJAK (Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan) organization. The incursions began on Saturday night. Fighting continued throughout most of Sunday. By late Sunday afternoon, a tense quiet had returned to the border area.

Reports differ regarding the number of casualties, and the areas of engagement. The official Iranian news agency (IRNA) said that five PJAK members and one Revolutionary Guardsman had been killed in fighting in the area of Sardasht, a Kurdish town close to the border. The Iranians also claimed to have captured a wounded PJAK member. A Colonel of the Revolutionary Guards, Delavar Ranjbarzadeh, told IRNA that PJAK had suffered a ‘heavy and historic defeat.’

The Kurdish rebels dismiss this version of events. PJAK spokesman Sherzad Kamankar, said that 53 Iranians had been killed in the clashes, along with two PJAK members. He added that PJAK had succeeded in forcing the Iranians to retreat back across the borderline. Kurdish sources reported the deaths of two Revolutionary Guards officers in the fighting, naming one of them as Colonel Halit Sure.

Kurdish sources in the area also confirmed that Iranian bombardments took place at a number of other points along the border. The areas of Sehit Harun, Sehit Ayhan and Dola Koke, inside the Kurdish ruled part of Iraq, also came under fire.

Both Iranian and Kurdish sources noted a build up of Iranian forces, possibly indicating further escalation ahead. IRNA reported the presence of 5000 Iranian troops along the border. PJAK sources noted that Iranian forces were equipped with armor, missile launching equipment and helicopter gunships.

The Iranian incursion into the Kurdish ruled area of northern Iraq is the latest stage in a process of escalation that has been under way over the last month.

On July 3, Massoud Barzani, President of Iraqi Kurdistan, warned the Iranians over ongoing cross border operations by their forces. Iran responded a week ago by accusing Barzani’s government of allocating 300,000 hectares of land to PJAK without the knowledge of the central government in Baghdad. Iranian officials said that the land was intended to be used as a base for training and for launching attacks into Iran. An official quoted by the Fars news agency said that Iran ‘reserves its right to target and destroy terrorist bases in the border areas.’ Barzani denied that any lands have been allocated to PJAK.

The Iranian decision to strike across the border at this time, analysts say, may be related to Teheran’s broader strategy of encouraging disorder in Iraq as a means of placing pressure on the USA and the west. With the US Administration hoping to conduct an orderly withdrawal from Iraq at the end of the year, Washington is particularly vulnerable on this front. The Iranians are keen to remind the Americans of this vulnerability.

Some Kurdish sources note Iranian concern at the possible loss of Teheran’s main Arab ally – Assad’s Syria. It is generally accepted that firm western support of the Syrian opposition could form a decisive factor in bringing Assad down. Such support has not yet materialized. Iran may well consider that one of the ways of preventing the emergence of such support would be to remind Washington of its own vulnerability to disruption and subversion in Iraq.

The events of the last days thus cast a spotlight on a largely ignored element of the cold war under way between Iran and its enemies in the region. Increased activities by Iranian-supported Shia terror groups in southern and central Iraq have been noted in recent weeks. Actions by such groups resulted in the deaths of 15 US troops in Iraq in June.

It now appears that the Kurdish-ruled areas of northern Iraq are also set to be included in this Iranian campaign of destabilization. Stirring up a crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan is of particular value because this area has been the quietest and most well-administered part of the country since the US invasion.

The presence of anti-Iranian and anti-Turkish guerrilla groups in the Qandil Mountains border area has posed a dilemma for the Kurdish authorities. Mindful of the very difficult conditions facing their fellow Kurds in these countries, they have been reluctant to act against these elements.

The result is that Iranian bombardments and Turkish air raids form part of the reality of life in these areas. This has continued even as the Kurdish authorities have attempted to establish normal relations with Iran and Turkey.

Iran now appears to be activating this front, for its own purposes. The official Iranian media and the Kurdish rebels broadcast widely differing accounts of what exactly happened in the Iran-KRG border area in the last days. The accounts agreed, however, on one central point: considerable bloodshed took place, in fighting between the Revolutionary Guards and PJAK, following Iranian incursions across the border. Further escalations in the weeks ahead appear likely.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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