A man holds the Israeli flag as others raise the flag of the Kurdistan Region during a demonstration outside the UN Office in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region, protesting against the escalating crisis with Baghdad. Photo: AFP/ Safin Hamed
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Quds commander Qassem Soleimani have spoiled an American-Israel plot to create a second Israel in the Kurdistan Region, chief of staff of Iran’s Supreme Leader said on Tuesday.
Kurdish officials, including the Peshmerga and Kurdistan Region's Security Council, have repeatedly said that the US-sanctioned Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) played a key role in the week-long military incursion into Kurdish-controlled territories in Kirkuk and the disputed or Kurdistani areas.
Kurdish officials say about 600 civilians were killed during the Iraqi advances into Kirkuk and Khurmatu. The figures have not been verified by independent rights organizations, but the UN, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have all documented violations in those areas last week.
The Peshmerga reported losing 30 soldiers in Kirkuk and Pirde (Altun Kupri).
Mohamadi Gulpaigani, the Iranian chief of staff, said that Iran ended the dream to establish an independent state of Kurdistan, a second Israel, when Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi took control of Kirkuk last week.
“The United States and Israel had plotted to create a second Israel in the Kurdistan Region, and it was shameful to wave the Israeli flag there, but the instructions of the Supreme Leader and the sacrifices of general Soleimani spoiled their plots, and Kirkuk was liberated without a single drop of blood being shed,” Gulpaigani said at an event, according to Fars News Agency, which is close to the IRGC.
Iranian Mehr News also quoted him as saying that the Kurdistan Region was exporting Kirkuk’s oil to Israel without the approval of the Iraqi central government.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday said Israel had "great sympathy" for Kurdish aspirations and that the world should concern itself with their wellbeing.
Multiple reports point to some family members of the late former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, also the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), making a deal with the Quds commander that eventually resulted in the fall of Kirkuk. The Talabani family has denied the accusations.
The US National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, said last week that the Iranian commander exploited a “power struggle” among the PUK ranks, portraying itself as the “protector” of the party.
He said the Iranian presence in Iraq poses a threat to the United States and Israel.
Soleimani’s role is “based on improving and increasing their ability to threaten Israel, to threaten the United States and Saudi Arabia and so forth,” the American National Security Advisor said.
He said that the United States faces the tricky task of managing a complex situation, protecting Kurdistan and limiting Iranian influence.
“What we need to do though is we have to work to mediate this conflict in a way that allows our Kurdish friends to enjoy the safety, security, and prosperity they built over so many years and not regress from that. But then also that keeps Iraq on a path to strengthening, right, and to not being aligned with Iran. And so, this has led to a level of complexity,” McMaster explained.
Kurdistan Region, like Iraq, does not have direct diplomatic relations with Israel, but the two enjoy historical relations that go back decades. Israel was the only country that publicly supported the Kurdish independence referendum that saw 93 percent support for leaving Iraq. Some Kurds waved Israeli flags at pro-independence rallies both at home and abroad, despite instructions from Kurdish officials to raise only the flag of Kurdistan.
Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, among others, opposed the independence vote and have taken coordinated measures against the Kurdistan Region, including ban on international flights.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is expected to visit Tehran on Wednesday for meetings with Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.