Soleimani ‘gets his way again’ as Iran fills strategic vacuum


Credit: Bipartisan Policy Center

Najmaldin Karim, the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk Province, will not be returning to the city that elected him in 2011 and 2014. It’s too dangerous, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reports:

In an interview Wednesday, he told me he fled his home on Tuesday in the early evening and has no plans at the moment to return. “If I go back, my life is in danger,” he told me. “Even the night when all this happened, I had to maneuver carefully to go to safety.” Karim’s blunt assessment calls into question a few things the Iraqi and U.S. government have been saying about the crisis that began after the Iraqi military this week drove out the Kurdish militias that had secured the city of Kirkuk since 2014.

Qassem Soleimani

To start, it suggests many Kurds do not put faith in Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s recent order for Shiite militias, many of whom are proxies of Iran, to leave the city. Karim told me, “Last night Shiite militias raided Kurdish neighborhoods, and today thousands are leaving. They beat up people. This was all from the Shiite militias. The ones the U.S. led coalition said were not there.” He added: “Abadi claims there were no casualties. We have seen trucks full of dead bodies.” 

Baghdad has sent troops and Shia militias to reoccupy Kirkuk and other disputed areas following the recent Kurdish independence referendum, notes Marina Ottaway, Middle East Fellow at the Wilson Center. The operation shows the extent of Iranian influence not only in Baghdad but also in Kurdistan, which will complicate a post-ISIS settlement in Sunni areas, she writes in “Iraq’s Victory in Kirkuk a Harbinger of More Conflict.”

With the fight against ISIS, or Islamic State, winding down, cracks in the Arab-Kurdish alliance are likely to emerge as issues of governance and reconstruction take center stage, AP reports:

Looking across the border, Syria’s Kurds are nervous as they see Washington’s support for their Iraqi Kurdish counterparts waver amid a dispute with the Iraqi government in the wake of last month’s Kurdish independence vote.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US Ambassador to Iraq, said in a series of tweets Monday morning that Iran’s “IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] -backed militia led by terrorist Mahdi Mohandis has begun an assault on Kirkuk.”

The fall of Kirkuk is undeniably “a big victory for the IRGC and its commander, Soleimani,” Khalilzad told The NY Post’s Benny Avni. Khalilzad [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group] advocates active US involvement in negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil, the Iraqi-Kurdish capital.

Former U.S. national security officials told NBC News the Iranian-brokered seizure of oil-rich Kirkuk by the Iraqi government and its militia partners, which heightens the risk of civil war, amounts to an embarrassing strategic blow to the U.S. at the hands of Iran.

“It is a catastrophic defeat for the United States and a fantastic victory for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, proving that Qassem Soleimani gets his way once again,” said Ali Khedery, a former senior adviser on Iraq policy in the Bush and Obama administrations.

Soleimani advised Iraq’s predominantly Shiite Popular Mobilization Front militias in the buildup to this week’s territorial withdrawal. The Shiite militias are an integral part of Iraq’s military apparatus but are viewed with considerable distrust by the Kurds, who consider them a symbol of Tehran’s influence in Iraq, The Washington Post adds.

Before the situation worsens, BPC’s Task Force on Managing Disorder in the Middle East says the United States can take four steps to help stabilize it:

  • Keep the focus on Iran and ISIS, not feuding among allies
  • Express firm support for the integrity of the Kurdistan Regional Government within its constitutional borders
  • Work with the KRG, Baghdad and possibly Ankara on an equitable regime for all oil exports and distribution of oil income
  • Quietly make clear to Baghdad that the United States wants a long-term military presence in Iraq, but if blocked will focus on securing a presence in the KRG

The task force is co-chaired by Eric Edelman, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, and Jake Sullivan, former director of policy planning, former national security advisor to the Vice President. Read the analysis in more detail.

“We’re confident that Qassem Soleimani [right] engineered, guided, directed, manipulated this deal,” Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdish representative in Washington, told NBC News:

Soleimani helped negotiate a deal under which one Kurdish faction would abandon its checkpoints and allow Iraqi government forces, backed by Iranian-supported Shiite militias, to take the city uncontested. That explains, they say, why there was so little fighting as Iraqi forces, armed with heavy weapons provided by the U.S., seized Kirkuk from the Kurds, who also carry American weapons and have been the most stalwart U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS.

Quds Force commander Soleimani [arguably the regime’s leading strategist] has gloated: “We are witnessing the export of the Islamic Revolution throughout the region. From Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa,” notes Tony Badran, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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