x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Iran's cross-border raids on Kurdish rebels upset Iraqis

Revolutionary Guard seizes control of three Iranian Kurdish guerrilla bases inside Iraq, a move that brought a call for the Iraqi prime minister to condemn the raid.

BAGHDAD // An Iraqi politician yesterday called on the prime minister Nouri Al Maliki's government to condemn a raid and occupation by Iran in Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq, saying that a failure to do so is a "sign of weakness".

Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders announced on Monday that they had seized control of three militant camps, a claim that was immediately disputed as "incorrect" by Iraqi security officials.

However, local residents and security officers say the Iranian reports are true.

"There was an attack by Iranian Revolutionary Guard units against Pjak bases inside Iraq, and there was fighting between the two sides," an Iraqi security official stationed in the area said. Iraqi forces had not intervened, he said.

"Iranian forces have taken over camps in three areas, and are some two to three kilometres inside Iraqi territory," the official said.

Pjak, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, is a group of mostly Iranian Kurdish guerrillas fighting against Tehran's regime, which considers Pjak a terrorist movement.

Today, a six-member committee of MPs was due to arrive in the border zone on a fact-finding mission. MPs say there has been an alarming lack of information coming from the government.

"We understand there has been an attack by Iranian forces inside Iraq and there are reports Iranian troops remain in Iraqi territory but there are few details about it," said Shawan Mohammad Taha, an MP who sits on the parliamentary security and defence committee.

Mr Taha, who is part of the fact-finding team, urged the Iraqi government to condemn the attack, saying its failure to do so was a "sign of weakness".

More than a dozen Iranian commandos were killed or injured in heavy fighting, according to the Iraq security source.

A Revolutionary Guards official told Iranian state-run media that one solider was killed and three wounded in the operation, which began on Saturday.

He said many Pjak personnel were killed, including one leader of the group.

Residents of the remote border region said they had been given advance notice by Iraqi border guards to leave the area ahead of the attacks.

"Two days before the Iranian troops came, we were given warning by people working at the border to leave our homes and our farms," said a shepherd, who asked to be identified only as Serwan. "It was a clear warning, civilians were told to leave."

Serwan said he took his family and sheep to safety in a nearby village.

"As we were leaving, we could hear the shooting and the bombs exploding. It sounded like a bloody fight," he said.

The absence of a rebuke at Iran from the Iraqi government is a silence that some Iraqi politicians ascribe to Mr Al Maliki's close relationship with Tehran.

"Parliament certainly does not accept that Iranian forces can either bomb Iraqi territory or carry out raids inside our borders," Mr Taha, the MP, said. "Parliament is not happy about this."

In December, Iranian troops took over part of a disputed oil installation inside southern Iraq. Iraqi officials condemned the seizure of a well in the Fakkah oilfield as a "violation of Iraq's sovereignty". The troops eventually withdrew, but Baghdad authorities were widely criticised inside Iraq for their meek response.

With Saturday's cross-border assault, members of Iraq's Parliament have once again expressed alarm at national frontiers being violated by a neighbouring state's military.

Jabbar Yawar, head of the Peshmerga, the military force of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) out of Irbil, had previously dismissed reports of Iranian military operations inside KRG territory as "incorrect". He said on Monday that the clashes happened inside Iran.

Since 2007, Iranian and Turkish militaries have carried out unilateral attacks against Kurdish rebel bases inside northern Iraq. The bases are remote and controlled by the rebels, not the KRG.

Iraqi authorities have shown little will or ability to prevent the incidents and Iranian shelling into Iraq's territory is not uncommon, according to residents along the border.

Turkish army and air force attacks against the mountain strongholds of the PKK - the Kurdistan Workers Party - have been condemned by Iraqi and KRG officials.

Earlier this month, PKK rebels attacked Turkish army units inside Turkey, killing 13 soldiers and wounding seven, according to Ankara. The US and Turkey consider the PKK a terrorist group and Washington has in the past provided intelligence to Ankara during military campaigns against the militants.

The Kurds were promised independence by European powers in the aftermath of the First World War, only for Kurdish territories to instead be divided among Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Since then, Kurdish nationalists have waged armed struggles against various central governments, with limited success.

Iraq's Kurds enjoy a high level of independence, while some living in Iran, Turkey and Syria say they continue to suffer from discrimination.