In an unexpected diplomatic turn of events which underscores the seriousness of escalating tensions between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the head of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard (which last week were designated by the US as a terrorist organization), General Qassem Soleimani, arrived in Erbil on Sunday and met with Kurdistan regional president Masoud Barzani to discuss the growing crisis at a moment when Kurdish Peshmerga forces are blocking Iraqi Army access to Kirkuk oil fields and military installations.
Major General Qassem Soleimani reports directly to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and his elite force provides training and weapons to Iraqi paramilitary groups (PMU or Popular Mobilization Units) backing the Baghdad government. The meeting comes just after President Trump announced his new policy against Iran on Friday that includes designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization.
Though the Unites States officially backs the Iran-aligned Baghdad government in the Kurdistan crisis, Trump's speech could signal a monumental shift in policy for Iraq. This as Kurdistan officials and media are highlighting Iran's role in attempting to stamp out the Kurdish move for independence.
As we previously explained, last month's Kurdistan referendum pushed Iraq into the arms of Iran when the relationship between Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi and Iranian officials was at its lowest level. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (and perhaps most Iraqis) now sees in Iran the only legitimate and sincere partner Iraq can count on, and can rely on the Iranian Army and the IRGC in the case of any broader military escalation against Kurdistan, particularly in the disputed Iraqi cities, with Kirkuk now topping the list.
In spite of both Baghdad and the KRG publicly vowing to do everything possible to avoid direct military confrontation, sporadic fighting broke out Friday and early Saturday near the disputed and oil-rich Kirkuk province between Peshmerga fighters and Shia milita forces (PMU, Popular Mobilization Units) backing the central Iraqi government.
— Lawk Ghafuri (@LawkGhafuri) October 15, 2017
On Friday night, fighting erupted in Khurmatu - a city which lies in a disputed area claimed by Kurdistan just south of Kirkuk. Footage emerged showing the direct clashes which seemed to be short lived; it is unclear if there were any casualties, and it appears that front lines have gone quiet since late Saturday.
And now both sides are trading blame for partnering with "terrorists" with Erbil claiming Revolutionary Guard units to be among PMU forces near Kirkuk and Baghdad accusing Erbil of using PKK fighters, which it says is "a declaration of war."
Meanwhile, neocon think tanks such as the Hudson Institute have analysts in Erbil calling for US military intervention against "Iranian-backed militias". According to Hudson Institute spokesman Michael Pregent, "Part of what we're doing out here is we're presenting the administration... the administration relies on experts out here to fuel what's going on in the intelligence community." Over the weekend Pregent lamented what he called US "inaction" against Iraq's Shia militias.
Of course, Kurdistan media is only too happy to to amplify such voices:
— Kurdistan 24 English (@K24English) October 15, 2017
Meanwhile, events continue to unfold at a lightning pace. Here is the latest:
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