x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Hundreds flee from fighting between Iranian soldiers and Kurdish rebels inside Iraq

Kurdish villagers caught up in Iranian military offensive that began on July 16 against Pjak, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan.

Fighting between the Iranian military and Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq has caused hundreds of villagers to flee from their homes amid signs that the conflict along the Iraqi-Iranian border is escalating.

The International Committee of the Red Cross "has provided humanitarian assistance to over 800 internally displaced people in northern Iraq, all of whom have been driven from their homes by the recent shelling in the mountains of Qandil", a statement from the organisation said this week.

The Kurdish villagers have been caught up in an Iranian military offensive that began on July 16 against Pjak, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan. The organisation demands autonomy for Iranian Kurds and uses the isolated mountain range as a base to strike at military targets in Iran.

Mohammed Tofiq, a spokesman for the Kurdish opposition party Goran, the Change Movement, said their was "no justification for Iran to bomb the border areas" because civilians live among the guerrillas. He criticised the Kurdistan Regional Government for saying little about Iran's violation of Iraqi sovereignty, adding: "Even from Baghdad, we haven't heard anything".

An officer of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces said 12,000 troops have been deployed to the region, the Erbil-based Rudraw newspaper reported yesterday. The officer said: "We will confront any forces that may attempt to cross the borders of Kurdistan."

Iraq's Council of Representatives has responded to the crisis by sending a parliamentary delegation on a fact-finding mission to Kurdistan. The spokesman for the committee, Hasan Al Sinead, said on Sunday that Iranian forces had not crossed the border into Iraq, but their artillery had shelled border villages "without justification".

The committee's conclusion conflicts with a statement made by an Iranian military commander last week when he claimed Iranian forces had taken "full control" of three Pjak camps inside Iraq.

In the days leading up to the assault, state-run Iranian media reported that 5,000 Iranian troops had been moved to the border region.

The Iranian military said it has killed "dozens of Pjak terrorists" while Pjak claimed 255 members of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and eight guerrillas had died during the fighting.

Orouj Mojahedi, the governor of the western Iranian city of Piranshahr, warned on Friday that the operation would continue until Pjak was "fully uprooted" from the region.

Soran Khedri, a London-based spokesman for Pjak, said the Iranian troops used tanks, armoured vehicles, helicopters and artillery, and crossed one kilometre into Iraqi territory on the first day of the assault. He said the Iranian's claim to have taken control of three camps is propaganda, because "the guerrillas don't have camps."

Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it has been long predicted that Iran would expand its activities in Iraq by the end of this year.

About 6.8 million Kurds live in Iran and 4.3 million in Iraq. Both communities have pushed for greater autonomy, against the wishes of their national governments.

Iran has "lashed out at Kurdish areas in Iraq" because of the "reoccurrence of the Kurdish problem in Iran", Mr Cordesman said, adding that the cross-border incursions are "sending a message" to Kurds in Iraq not to support those across the border.

Iran's main physical actions are in the south of the country, where it is supporting Shiite and even Sunni militias with weapons and finance, he said.

John Drake, a risk consultant with the UK-based AKE Group, said border incursions by the Turkish and Iranian militaries have been a fairly common occurrence in recent years. "It usually occurs during the summer months because it's too difficult to conduct combat operations during the winter in the mountains," he said.

"Fighting tends to cease for the Holy Month [of Ramadan], and there have been previous amnesties offered around that time so it could be that Iranian forces are looking to get as much of the fighting over with now," Mr Drake said.

 

jcalderwood@thenational.ae