By Omed Barin
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — A witness in the Kurdish city of Mahabad in Iran is reporting public displays of support for the Islamic State’s advances toward the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and threats against aiding victims of the extremists.
The witnesses told Rudaw that supporters of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) were publicly waving the black flags of the extremist group in Mahabad, a largely Kurdish city in western Iran. Candies have been distributed in mosques to celebrate the militia’s operations in Iraq, which have targeted Yezidis and other minorities and encroached on Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territories in Iraq.
"IS supporters in the city have threatened people against raising money for the Shingal refugees," a witness in the Iranian Kurdish city of Mahabad who spoke on condition of anonymity told Rudaw.
Tens of thousands of people fled IS attacks on the largely Yezidi town of Shingal in Nineveh province. Yezidis are ethnically Kurdish but practice an ancient religion. Amnesty International has described the IS persecution of minorities in Iraq as ethnic cleansing.
By Omed Barin
The eyewitness said IS supporters in Mahabad told residents that “the Yezidis were infidels who had not converted to Islam and that’s why they were condemned to an agonizing death.”
However, a religious leader from the city of Sanandaj, capital of Kurdistan province, dismissed the idea that IS was a threat to the Kurdish areas of Iran.
"They have a very weak base here in (Iranian) Kurdistan with no clear leadership," said the cleric, a prominent religious leader who asked to remain anonymous.
"There are some Islamic extremists in Iranian Kurdistan, but they are very small in number,” he said. “They have no direct relation to IS and were never too loud in the past, before the horrific events in Iraq. They usually come from urban areas and are often deeply impoverished.”
While there are fundamentalist Salafis in Iranian Kurdistan, most Sunni Islamists are supporters of the Al-Islah (Reform) and Daawa parties, which are tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.
"They just want to terrify people and show off. They have no popular support at all,” said Sulaiman Mangori, who is a member of the Islah and Daawa group in Mahabad.
Mukhtar Hoshmand, a researcher studying Islamic movements and the history of Salafism in Iranian Kurdistan, said the roots of radical Sunni groups in Iran could be traced back in the 1990s when jihadist ideology was thriving in neighboring Afghanistan.
When the Kurdish branch of Al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, became more powerful in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s, Iranian Kurdish youths were taken to training camps in northern Iraq, according to Hoshmand. He said until then, no jihadi Salafi group existed in Iranian Kurdistan.
Although Ansar al-Islam was weakened by joint US-Peshmerga during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a handful of the group’s extremists managed to flee to Iran.
"In the beginning the Islamic Republic of Iran seemed to like the idea of having a Muslim movement in Iranian Kurdistan to undermine (Kurdish) nationalist sentiments, but as soon as the Kurdish Islamists were organized they began preaching against the Iranian state,” Hoshmand said. “Soon Tehran changed course and immediately jailed 300 of their members.”
“I think it’s natural for some of the former Kurdish Al-Qaeda members to cross over to IS,” he maintained. “But this is a new movement and most of those who seem to support IS here are young and don’t appear to be particularly well organized.”