KRG worries about rocket attacks, US response

24-01-2024 02:27
The wrekage of a kamikaze drone that crashed into a civilian building in Erbil on 8 Dec 2023

Peregraf- Farman Sadiq

More than 30 drone, rocket, and missile attacks have been carried out in Erbil governorate over the past 90 days as part of the wider regional conflict stemming from the war in Gaza.

Most of the attacks have been carried out by Iran-backed armed groups, calling themselves the Islamic Resistance in Iraq (IRI). Their actions have prompted the federal government in Baghdad to intensify its efforts to secure the withdrawal of troops from the International Coalition, a move that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) opposes.

The IRI is an umbrella term used by a variety of known forces that are supported by Iran. The attacks began on October 17, ten days after the war in Gaza broke out. The most common targets in the Kurdistan Region are Erbil and Harir air bases, although a Peshmerga base in Pirmam was also attacked. Additionally, the IRI has hit other facilities hosting US troops in central Iraq and Syria.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has carried out one attack itself. On January 15, it fired ballistic missiles at a civilian house, killing four people and wounding seventeen others. Among the dead were businessmen Peshraw Dizayee and Karam Mikhail, Dizayee’s one-year-old daughter, and a Filipino worker.

Tehran claimed that it had destroyed an Israeli Mossad spy base in the attack, which KRG and Iraqi officials strongly denied.

The attack drew comparisons with an IRGC missile strike on the house of businessman Sheikh Baz Karim in Erbil in March 2022.

In total, observers from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy have recorded at least 163 attacks on Iraq and Syria as of January 22, with 37 in Erbil governorate.

Drones won’t be stopped by committees

In response to the attacks, Iraq’s federal government has formed a number of committees to investigate the incidents after the fact, though they are unlikely to yield anything substantive.

Jabar Yawar, a former Peshmerga official, told Peregraf that he believes that the establishment of committees will not stop the attacks. He noted that a similar commission was formed after the March 2022 attack, but rockets keep being launched.

Other Kurdish figures agree with that assessment.

"Iran is openly claiming the [January 15] attack and accusing the Kurdistan Region of having an Israeli base there. These are baseless excuses," Khadr Mantak, a member of the Iraqi parliament from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), told Peregraf.

"Iraqi government committees that visited Erbil denied that an Israeli base was bombed. The formation of the committee is a good thing, but it cannot stop the drone attacks," he continued.

"The Iraqi prime minister should take a strong stance and involve the international community, but it is being prevented," he added.

The Iraqi government has filed a complaint against Iran at the UN Security Council, describing the attack as hostile.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein told CNN that Baghdad expects a lot of support at the UN for the complaint.

"Iran is isolated from the rest of the world. If Iraq goes to the Security Council, it will create a big problem for Tehran, especially since Iraq is considered an ally of Iran," Hussein said.

The US responds

In response to the IRI’s attacks, the US has carried out at least seven retaliatory strikes in Iraq and Syria against armed groups backed by Iran, including one that killed a commander of the Nujaba Movement on January 4.

The retaliatory airstrike came one day after the fourth anniversary of Washington’s assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Hashd al-Shaabi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Furthermore, The US Central Command (CENTCOM) on Jan 24 has said "U.S. CENTCOM forces conducted unilateral airstrikes against three facilities used by Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia group and other Iran-affiliated groups in Iraq. These strikes targeted KH headquarters, storage, and training locations for rocket, missile, and one-way attack UAV capabilities".

The US currently has 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in northeastern Syria as part of the International Coalition that is fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group. It provides training and support to the Iraqi military and the Peshmerga.

Mantak said that he believes that the US response to the attacks on facilities hosting its soldiers has not been effective, given that the IRI and Iran continue to launch strikes.

"What we are seeing, in reality, is that the attacks have not stopped. In the meantime, the Kurdistan Region is paying the price," he said.

Will the 2011 scenario be repeated?

Many Kurds worry about a re-run of the 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq, which enabled the rise of ISIS.

At the time, thousands of US troops were still deployed in the country following the 2003 invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein. Unable to reach an agreement about their future, US President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a deal that mandated their withdrawal in 2011.

By 2014, ISIS had grown in power in parts of Syria and staged a lightning offensive across Iraq, taking a third of the country’s territory. The US initially staged air strikes, but quickly reached a deal with Baghdad to deploy troops to fight alongside Iraqi and Peshmerga forces.

Once again, there is pressure on the Iraqi prime minister — this time Mohammed Shia al-Sudani — to set a timetable for the withdrawal of US soldiers.

Dr. Sardar Aziz, a researcher, believes that the United States will not leave Iraq under pressure, because leaving Iraq means also leaving Syria and the Kurdistan Region.

"Their departure means losing the confidence of the Gulf countries and giving Iran a very cheap victory," Aziz said.

He noted that "the US presence depends on an agreement with the Iraqi government. Iran does not want the United States to be expelled from Iraq because it will cause economic damage, but it should not stay in Iraq militarily."

Erbil is watching Washington

Beyond condemnations, the KRG has not taken any practical steps to counter the attacks by Iran and the IRI.

Iraq and the Kurdistan Region do not have any air defense systems to protect themselves from drones, rockets, and missiles. Erbil hopes that the Biden administration will deploy these kinds of systems in the Kurdistan Region in the future.

Mantak, the KDP MP, said that "we have high expectations from them for the sake of protecting our citizens."

"Citizens cannot pay the price, but, unfortunately, we have not seen anything from [Washington] yet," he added.

Yawar said that the installation of an air defense system is still just "news in the media" and that its deployment requires the approval of the Iraqi government.

While this is being discussed, drone and rocket attacks by the IRI continue.

It is designed to put pressure on forces friendly to the US and intimidate them into reducing their support for keeping US troops in Iraq and create opportunities for the Shia Coordination Framework to solidify its hold on power.

"The Kurdistan Region will be secure when US forces are no longer in Kurdistan, and all Kurdish political parties win the approval of the Shia Coordination Framework and Iran. In other words, the Kurdistan Region will feel safe, when Iran can achieve its goals without any obstacles," Aziz said.

But this view was not universally shared.

"The situation in the region shows that if the conflict is not suppressed, everyone will suffer, including the Kurdistan Region," Mantak said.

"Of course, the Kurdistan Region will not be safe if the situation continues like this."