Rockets fired at Erbil, Iraq: Residents of Nineveh discuss unprecedented attack; context of Iran
Figure 1: Rocket fire from Sheikh Amir targets Erbil
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN, JONATHAN SPYER and MECRA Iraq researchers*
On September 30 six rockets were fired from the Nineveh plains towards Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. The rocket fire was unprecedented and the munitions impacted near the international airport, which is used by commercial flights and the US-led coalition.
The rocket fire comes in the wake of dozens of similar, but smaller, rocket and improvised explosive device attacks on facilities linked to the coalition and the United States presence in Iraq. Pro-Iranian political parties have called for the US to leave Iraq. Tensions have grown in the last year and the US has handed over eight facilities to full Iraqi control as part of a consolidation of forces. Days before the rocket attack, on September 27, Washington had warned Baghdad it could close its embassy of similar rocket attacks continued. The US would still have a consulate and facilities in the Kurdistan region. The rocket attack appears to be a message to the US that its facilities at the airport can be targeted, and a message to the Kurdistan region that its capital can be destabilized.
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Masrour Barzani demanded Baghdad hold the perpetrators responsible. “I have spoken to PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi on the importance of holding the perpetrators accountable.”
The following article contains research from Iraq and context compiled by the authors.
Nineveh Governorate in Iraq is one of the country’s largest administrative areas. It’s center is Mosul but it contains a large amount of rural desert areas to the west stretching to the Syrian border. It is the heartland of many minority groups, especially the Yazidis who live around Mount Sinjar. It also has large populations of Turkmen and Shebeks, as well as Kurds and Christians. There are Shi’ite communities, including among the Shebek, making this one of the most diverse areas of Iraq.
With a population of more than three million in the Governorate and 37,000 square kilometers, much of which is open plains and desert, Mosul was often a target of insurgents prior to the rise of ISIS. When ISIS arrived in June of 2014 it easily captured the city, leading to more than one million people fleeing the area, many of whom ended up in IDP camps in the Kurdistan region.
It took until October of 2016 for a combined assault by the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces to attempt to liberate Nineveh plains, to the east of Mosul, from ISIS. The attack was carried out by the Peshmerga in its opening phase and then by the Iraqi ICTS and other Iraqi federal forces. Waiting on the sidelines initially were the elements of the Hashd al-Sha’abi or Popular Mobilization Units. This group of mostly Shi’ite militias included more than fifty brigades and some 150,000 men under arms. With key leadership from Badr leader Hadi al-Amiri and Kataib Hezbollah head Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, who was the deputy of the PMU, the group agreed to play a role in fighting outside of the city. This was due to concerns over sectarian clashes with the largely Sunni population under ISIS control.
The PMU included brigades for minority groups, including Shebeks and Christians. In the Nineveh Plains the 30th Brigade, sometimes called Hashd al-Shebek was drawn from local members of the minority group. Shebeks also joined the 50th Brigade.
Figure 2: An image of Hadi al-Amiri in a Brigade 30 area. (Jonathan Spyer)
Brigade 30 of the PMU
Known as the Liwa al-Shebek/Quwaat Sahl Nineveh (Shebek brigade/Nineveh Plains Forces) Brigade 30 recruits from among the Shebek people, a non-Arab ethnic minority native to the Nineveh Plains. The brigade consists of 1,000-1,500 fighters.
The majority of Shebek are Shia by religion, and Brigade 30 is considered by informed analysts to be affiliated with the Iran-linked Badr Organization. Photos of brigade members show them wearing Badr patches. While this affiliation is not always officially acknowledged by the Brigade, the authors also observed in a visit to the Bartella area controlled by the 30 Brigade in late 2017 that signs and posters of the Badr Brigade and including pictures of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were displayed in the area. Checkpoints were manned by young men in 2017 who wore the Badr and 30th Brigade patches.
Speaking to the authors at that time, residents of the traditionally Christian town of Bartella accused the Brigade of sectarian abuses, and specifically of seeking to prevent the return of Christian Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to Bartella in order to ensure its transformation into a Shia town.
Figure 3: A Shebek Brigade 30 checkpoint manned by a young man with a Badr patch and ‘Hashd al-Shebek’ patch, April 2017, 2020 (Seth Frantzman)
In July 2019 Waas Qado, Brigade 30’s commander, was made the subject of US sanctions. Qado is a local man, a Shebek from the city of Mosul. According to the US Treasury Department statement announcing sanctions against the Brigade 30 commander, “Members of the local population allege that the 30th Brigade has been responsible for egregious offenses, including physical intimidation, extortion, robbery, kidnapping, and rape.”
Brigade 30 derives a large income from the maintenance of checkpoints along the Mosul-Erbil highway. This is the main artery for goods and reconstruction materials travelling into Mosul. The Brigade have established a headquarters inside Bartella (a matter of particular concern as expressed by Bartella Christians, since they see it as evidence that the Brigade intend to convert the area into a Shebek and Shia town). The Brigade is also involved in the scrap metal business in eastern Mosul (a major source of income because of reconstruction).
Most importantly, the Brigade came to control access to the area where the rockets were fired at Erbil on September 30. The authors all travelled in this area in the last four years and have observed the tight control of checkpoints linked to the 30th and the PMU in general.
Tensions leading up to the rocket attack
In September 2017 the Kurdistan Regional Government held an independence referendum. Baghdad responded harshly, sending the PMU and Iraqi Federal forces to take back Kirkuk and Sinjar from the KRG’s Peshmerga control. Clashes left dead on both sides and anger. Baghdad also ordered the airports closed in Erbil and Suleimaniyah, economically strangling and isolating the Kurdistan region.
Since the clashes the Kurdish Peshmerga have maintained a defensive line that stretches around Erbil. The Peshmerga commanders have warned for years that the PMU represents a threat to stability and that empowering the PMU through enabling its continued control after the defeat of ISIS would lead to instability. Then KRG President Masoud Barzani warned the US about the PMU in 2017. His replacement in May 2019, Nechirvan Barzani, has been more cautious in statements about the PMU. Instead of addressing those concerns the Iraqi army left relatively few units in the north and bolstered them with PMU groups who control the checkpoints and regions. The Coalition deployed Security Force Assistance Brigades to support the local Peshmerga and Iraqi units.
Iraq held elections in May 2018. While Moqtada al-Sadr received the most votes, the second largest party was Hadi al-Amiri’s Fatah Alliance, which represents the interests and factions of the PMU. The KRG’s Kurdish parties (KDP and PUK) won roughly 50 seats.
The PMU also became an official paramilitary force, receiving government salaries. The PMU’s complex leadership, with different factions controlling different brigades, made it unwieldy and it was not integrated as an official force. It is worth looking at several examples.
The head of the Population Mobilization Committee (Commission), and member of the National Security Council, Faleh al-Fayyadh, continued to wield influence along others such as Amiri and Muhandis. He had been nominated in 2011 under Nouri al-Maliki, whose sectarian rule was blamed for weakening Iraq during the leadup to ISIS. While Maliki left, Fayyadh remained, welcomed by US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in 2011, NATO in 2014, and Iraqi leaders across the political spectrum. He was twice dismissed from his position, in December 2019 and July 2020. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singled out Fayyadh for an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad in January 2020. After the rocket fire on September 30 against Erbil, Fayyadh met with former KRG President Masoud Barzani. Various efforts at PMU reform have taken place since the 2018 elections. None of them proved successful. Tensions rose in August 2019 in Nineveh plains when Shebek protesters refused Baghdad’s orders to have their units withdraw. Tensions, which MECRA documents, grew in Nineveh and the 30th Brigade remained in charge of the area. At the time there were also allegations of Iranian influence, including secret detention centers and threats to US forces. In April 2020 units of the PMU linked to Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose fatwa in 2014 helped create the PMU, broke with the leadership and demanded to be under the control of the Defense Ministry. This would have bifurcated the PMU between groups closer to Iran, such as Badr, Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the territorial brigades from southern Iraq linked to Sistani. By the summer of 2020 most of the efforts at reform were stymied by the opaque and complex sectarian, political and religious nature of the various brigades of the PMU.
This coincided with a third crises facing Iraq. Pro-Iranian parties in Iraq wanted the US to leave after the battle against ISIS was largely complete in 2017. Pressure rose, including harassment of US-led Coalition forces in Anbar Province and Nineveh. In February 2019 PMU units stopped a US patrol and harassed the Americans near Mosul. The Coalition downplayed the incident. The Shebek unit of the PMU was blamed for the encounter by reports.
In May of 2019 the US warned Iraq about Iranian threats and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Iraq to discuss the matter with Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi. Non-emergency US staff were withdrawn from Baghdad on May 8, 2019. Soon after rocket attacks began to target US forces in Iraq. In August rockets struck near Balad air base. Seventeen katyusha-style 107mm rockets were fired at Qayarrah air base (Q-West) in November 2019. US Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker blamed Iran for the rise in attacks in September 2019.
At the time of the rising rocket attacks, which the US increasingly believed Kataib Hezbollah was behind with orders from Tehran, the PMU was dealing with two other issues: Protests and munition warehouse explosions. Protests broke out on October 1, 2019 after Baghdad sacked Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, a popular Counter-Terrorism Service commander. In addition five explosions at PMU-run munition warehouses led the Shi’ite militia leaders within the PMU to blame Israel for the attacks.
The rocket attacks led to the death of a US contractor near Kirkuk in December and US airstrikes on PMU sites. The PMU reacted by storming the US embassy compound in Baghdad. Pompeo blamed Iran and singled out Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis of Kataib Hezbollah, Qais Khazali of AAH, Hadi al-Amiri of Badr and Fayyadh of the PMU committee. Two days later the US killed Muhandis and IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, n January 3.
Figure 4 US withdrawals and handover of facilities around Erbil and Mosul in March 2020
The tensions that came to a head in January led to the rocket attacks on Erbil because of the changes on the ground between January and October. As attacks increased the US consolidated its forces to better protect them. The outbreak of Covid-19 and defeat of ISIS gave this consolidation cover to appear planned. US troop levels would be reduced from 5,200 to 3,000 and many foreign elements of the PMU would leave. Three coalition casualties in March, and more airstrikes by the US on the PMU, accelerated the process. The US left all the key facilities around Nineveh plains as well, which meant there were less possibilities for US forces in that area to be targeted by pro-Iranian groups and less opportunities for the US to keep an eye on terrorist elements moving among the Brigade 30 checkpoints.
On March 26, 2020 the US left Qayarrah base, an airstrip it had helped improve before the Mosul offensive. US forces left the Nineveh base near Mosul on March 30 as Iranian media looked on. US forces also left K-1 base near Kirkuk. These base handovers enabled the US to focus air defense and protection for forces at Union III in Baghdad near the embassy and at Al-Asad.
Concerned with continued attacks, the US said it could close the embassy. This came in the wake of failures of the new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to rein in the militias. He had briefly tried in June to send the Counter-Terrorism forces to detain Kataib Hezbollah members. They were released days later. The US and Iraq were discussing strategic dialogue, but events on the ground brought the US to threaten Baghdad with the embassy closure. Washington said it couldn’t tolerate more attacks. And the attacks became more brazen, with one killing a family on September 28 (for a full list of attacks see our data set). The next day rockets were fired at Erbil.
At least four rockets landed in the vicinity of Gazna village, the Kurdistan Regional Government said on September 30. Locals took video and photos of fields burning near the airport. This area is northwest of Erbil. The Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) Directorate General of Counter Terrorism (CTD) said six rockets were launched toward Erbil International Airport from Sheikh Amir village in Nineveh. The area was controlled by the 30th Brigade.
The attack took place around 8:30 in the evening. The KRG said there was no damage and the rockets fell in a deserted area. However the area they fell is adjacent to the airport and illustrates how close they came to sensitive areas.
Nineveh Operations Command of the PMU said on October 1 that they would investigate the attack. They claimed the rockets were launched from an “uninhabited area” in Bashiqa subdistrict in an area between Iraqi army forces, the PMU and Shebeks. The Iraqi army in this area was previously linked to the 14th Division, it was not clear which unit was in charge at the time of the attack.
The timing of the attack and the range of the rockets used, as well as the targeting of the area near the airport illustrate that this was an escalation and a threat to the US and the Kurdistan region.
Figure 5: A poster commemorating the ‘martyrdom’ of a fighter from the Sayyed Al-Shuhada Brigades, a pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias, outside Bartella, September 2017 (Jonathan Spyer)
Details from Nineveh plains residents: PMU’s Shebek 30th Brigade ‘80% behind Erbil rocket attack’. Militias able to reach any place in Iraq – including KRG
MECRA conducted several interviews in the wake of the attack. Many residents were fearful to speak about the incident or the PMU. While we were conducting interviews some details emerged about claims of responsibility. Rumors sought to blame the attack on a Kurdish group to distract from the PMU’s likely role. An army unit and members of the Iraqi committee of intelligence and national security arrived at the 30th Brigades headquarters. Reports said that the Prime Minister would close the group’s headquarters in Baghdad. It was not clear if this was carried out.
No one was allowed to enter the area of Nineveh plains where the rockets were fired. “The people are scared, even the activists,” said locals we spoke to. Locals did say they felt there wouldn’t be more attacks from this specific area. They did not know if Iranian operatives or members of Kataib Hezbollah were present in the area. However, one university lecturer did express concern about ethnic tensions in Nineveh between Shebeks, Sunni Arabs and other minorities, such as Christians and Kurds. Most of the groups feared for the future living under multiple layers of security forces and militias and there being no clear authority or security. Locals complained that the checkpoints were guarded by young men from the 30th Brigade who had no military background or education. They also spoke about the “Shi’ite crescent” that stretches from Kirkuk to Mosul and Sinjar area. We have edited the interviews for clarity.
Interview with activist from Nineveh Plains, age 31
The attack happened one day after a statement by the Director of Police in Mosul, according to which, "Mosul governorate is the only one without unauthorized weapons, when compared with other cities in Iraq". The attack is related to personnel changes at the very top of the 30th Brigade of Hashd Al-Shebeki " Namely, command of the brigade has been transferred from ‘Abu Jaafar’ - Waad Mahmood Ahmad Qado, to Abu Zain Al-Abadin Jamil Kawthar.
I would see the attack as a challenge to the government and its security forces. The message is "we don’t respect borders, regional authorities or anyone else and we can do whatever we want. No one can stop us". It's an Iranian proxy militia in the process of completing its dominance in the entire area - and including in governmental sectors and revenue.
The area where the attack took place is under the control of the 30th brigade of PMU. Abu Jaafar has in recent years been the chief of staff of this force, with the support of Iraqi parliament member Hanin Qado. But five days ago Abu Jaafar was replaced by Kawthar.
Kawthar is completely loyal to Iran, the system of ‘Wilayat al Faqiya” (Rule of the Jurisprudent – ie the system of governance now ruling Iran), and Imam Khomeini. He considers himself part of the ‘Shia Crescent’ as he has said publicly more than once. [The ‘Shia triangle’ or ‘Shia Crescent’ is Iraqi term for the project by the Iran-backed Shia militias to achieve de facto control of the entire area of Iraq between the KRG and the border with Syria. This in turn forms part of an attempt by Iran via its militias to carve out a contiguous line of control from the Iraq-Iran border, via Diyala, area south of Kirkuk, Salah al-Din and Ninawa plains and then to Sinjar and the border with Syria.]
No one living in this area can speak and tell you what is really happening. The Shia militia has total control in the area. The area is well known as a place where torture, theft, kidnapping and killing of citizens takes place.
There is no such group as the "Kurdistan Freedom Group" [a previously unknown organization which issued a claim of responsibility for the recent rocket attacks on Erbil.] Rather, the militia is trying to use different names to hide its activities. I would say it is an 80% certain that the 30th Brigade of Hashd Al-Shebek carried out the recent rocket attacks on Kurdistan. But if you ask any people around this area no one will speak to you - because they are afraid of them.
The rumors that a new army chief of staff in Ninawa was involved are lies. He controls only inside Mosul city, not around it. He can’t even go to their area, the militia don't allow him to enter the area they are in. Ninawa Plain effectively has become a state within a state. Even the governor can't go to their area. Hanin Al-Qado is the secret power behind the 30th brigade and the key influence in the area.
University teacher living in the Shebek area, age 32
The issue in the Ninawa plain is that it is almost entirely now outside of the control of Mosul governorate. The area is divided between certain armed groups that operate in the area, either Christian or Shebek (Brigades 50 and 30 respectively). Both have armed militias. So we are in an area which is a military zone, run by militias.
The Iraqi army is unable to control Ninawa Plains with the presence of these militias in the area. The rocket attacks on Erbil are the continuation of a process of bombardment of military bases and of the embassy of the USA in Baghdad and other places.
But the message here is very clear - that it's not only embassy and diplomatic personnel who are the target, but also northern Iraq and the KRG area in its entirety are targets for the Iranian proxy militias. It's an escalation, and it is intended to embarrass President Trump in Iraq in the upcoming election in order to remove him from the presidency so that another Administration more flexible regarding Iran comes to power.
Iran will continue to keep up the pressure inside Iraq in the upcoming months as well. The rocket fired is local made and it has been assembled under the supervision of the militia that controls the area. It's not possible to carry out such an attack without the knowledge of the militia that controls the area. No one else could carry out such an attack on Kurdish diplomatic sites and personnel.
The area from where the attack was launched is under 30th Brigade militia control. The 30th Brigade is currently commanded by a new leader called Abu Zain Al-Abadin Jamil Kawthar. There is no direct evidence pointing to him as yet, but all the signs point to him, as his militia controls the area. This is an act of war against the USA.
Ninawa plain is populated by many minorities such as Christians, Shebek, and Yazidis. The Shebek population, in the area under the control of the 30th Brigade, can be divided into two groups.
One group supports and is loyal to the 30th brigade, because they believe that the brigade is protecting their rights against any attacks that may come from the Kurdistan region or the Sunnis just like how ISIS came to their area.
So this group is ready to fight and attend protests for the 30th brigade. A second group, which is the majority in the area, can't express what they want and ask for their rights, because of the domination of the 30th Brigade and the threats and arrests against them.
They are without freedom of speech, they are depressed and their voice cannot be heard. They cannot tell what is happening out there. If you go to their area, you will find villages that have no space, no sign of any rebuilding process and no public services.
They want a hospital, university, streets, and modern villages but the administration is controlled by a militia that has direct relations with regional power allies that don't permit them to build their area. The power that intervenes and has strong relations with that militia comes from Baghdad and Basra from military and political ties. The 30th brigade of Shebek had strong ties with Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in the past. Even if an investigation concluded that the leaders of 30th brigade are behind this no one can arrest them. There will be a political deal. But there would then be restriction on their ability in the area and cutting of the resources they get to support them.
I think the Ninawa plains is like a bomb that can blow up anytime. There is conflict between the Christian and Shebek militias. Between Sunnis and Shebek Shia there is a dangerous conflict, and between Kurds and Shebek as well. This could lead to conflict between Sunnis and Christian and Shebek militias in the area. Clashes between the Shebek and the other two sides is highly possible. It could take the form of a conflict between the state and a certain group, or an insurgency.
While residents of Nineveh expressed concern and fear after the rockets attacks, and focused on the unsettled situation in the area, several important political moves were made. “I strongly condemn tonight’s rocket attack in Erbil. The KRG will not tolerate any attempt to undermine Kurdistan’s stability and our response will be robust,” KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said.
The Iraqi Joint Operations Command also ordered the PMU units in the Nineveh Plains to pull back their positions by five kilometers, which would remove them from the area the attack was carried out and put the 122mm Grad rockets out of range of Erbil International Airport. Sources said the PMU opposed the move.
Iraqi Prime Minister Kadhimi said that on October 4 that the closure of the US embassy in Baghdad would lead to economic collapse. It is one of the largest US embassies and facilities of its kind in the world. In Baghdad protesters gathered to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the protests that began in 2019. At the same time Iran encouraged Iraq to remove the US, most recently during a visit by Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein to Tehran on September 26.
Figure 6 Comparison of the rocket launcher used on September 30 (left) and the one used in a March 2020 attack (right). The one on the left is believed to be a 122mm launcher and the other is a 107mm katyusha-style rocket launcher.
The 122mm rocket: Iran background
The rockets fired at Erbil on September 30 were of a similar type often exported by Iran to its proxy and terror groups. The alleged launcher for the rockets was found and photographed the night of the incident. They were in the back of a Bongo-style white truck, placed in long tubes specially constructed for them. These trucks were also common during the Iraqi insurgency when US forces were present in large numbers in Iraq in 2010-2011.
This is a very different configuration than the usual methods used to fire 107mm rockets at US forces in 2019 and 2020. The 107mm katyusha-style rocket launcher is more common and easy to conceal, which means the larger 122mm Grad rocket was selected due to its range.
The BM-21 Grad rockets has its origins in the Soviet Union since it was exported globally beginning in the 1960s. Iran has increased the range of its 122mm weapons over time, according to official accounts. Evidence of Iranian export was found in 2009 by UAE inspectors who raided the ANL Australia ship. More than 2,000 “detonators” were found on the Australia for these rockets, according to the Washington Post.
A raid on the Froncop by Israel in the same year found 500 tons of weapons. Israel said these were arms meant for Hezbollah. “The heaviest munitions, 122mm katyusha rockets, were packaged in created labelled ‘parts of bulldozer.’” These weapons were shipped to Hamas. Hezbollah and Hamas used these rockets against Israel. In January, 2002 eight Iranian-made rockets were found aimed at Kandahar airport in Afghanistan. They were 1.5 meters in length. In 2011 British special forces also found a shipment of 48 122mm rockets destined for the Taliban and sent from Iran. US officials in Afghanistan noted that the rockets were often used in configurations of 6 or 12, similar to the configuration found on the truck apparently used on September 30. Iran said in July that its ‘Arash’ version of the 122mm weapon has become a “precision” weapon today. The new Iranian version is accurate up to seven meters, Tehran says. The rocket can weigh up to 64kg.
Figure 7: Photo of the impact of the rocket near Erbil airport.
The size of the rocket and the threat to the airport point to planning for this attack to send a message to the US and the KRG. It is unlikely the 30th Brigade could have planned this attack because it is not known to possess these types of rockets or have used them in the past.
It appears more likely that the Brigade allowed a truck with these easily visible rockets to travel through its checkpoints. Because the Brigade is linked to Badr this has serious ramifications for the PMU and its role. The PMU has in the past played a double role as its units from Kataib Hezbollah carried out attacks on US and foreign forces in Iraq, including attacks on embassies. The same groups were alleged to be involved in killing protesters last year. However Badr has been careful to appear to distance itself from the attacks on US forces.
Iranian missile attacks on Kurdistan Region
Iran has targeted the Kurdistan region in the past. In September 2018 it carried out an attack with its Fateh 110 missile against Kurdish dissident groups near Koya. This attack showcased the precision of the Iranian missiles and use of drones to track the attacks. Iran has been increasing the precision and range of a variety of missiles in recent years. It has also targeted ISIS in Syria.
MECRA documented the September 2018 attacks and their importance. Like the September 30 attack in 2020 the 2018 attack was designed to send a message to the KRG to stop hosting armed Kurdish Iranian groups. The KRG has sought to stop cross border activity by groups such as PKDI and PJAK since 2018. In January 2020 Iran against targeted the Kurdistan region when it fired ballistic missiles at US forces at Al-Asad base and in Erbil. It did so in retaliation for the US strike on Soleimani.
Iran is cognizant that the US is consolidating forces in Iraq and adding air defense to the few US facilities that remain. There are different theories about the US consolidation for forces. Some postulate that the US has done this to make retaliation easier and not have as many targets of opportunity for pro-Iranian groups. However the White House has also said it wants to wrap up the US “endless wars” and US President Donald Trump has indicated that he could make decisions about Iraq in the future. The US has also drawn down forces in Syria, and then added armored vehicles to bolster those that remain. Trump has said the US could use Iraq to watch over Iran during the US maximum pressure campaign.
While the US campaign of sanctions on Iran has been part of some of the tensions, another desire of Iran historically is to remove US forces from Iraq plays a role in Tehran’s strategy. This is where Iranian-backed attacks and the timing of the attacks are important to analyze in order to see the pattern they present. A systematic, sustained and escalaing series of attacks have taken place. Hey began with 107mm rocket fire on smaller US posts in Iraq. They grew to include IED attacks on convoys that supply US forces and diplomatic facilities. They increased to ballistic missile and now what appear to be Grad rocket attack on Erbil, close to where US forces have been based at the airport.
The larger strategic picture for Iran is not only an interest in leveraging a swatch of Shi’ite communities with local PMU Brigades to exercise influence over a so-called Shi’ite Crescent, but also to move weapons through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. This weakening of Iraq’s central authority and creation of a PMU that has a resemblance to the IRGC in Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon is central to Iran’s project. It is a process that began under Maliki and accelerated under Abadi and Abdul Mahdi. The successor to Soleimani, Esmail Ghaani, was in Iraq in January, May and June of this year and video of him in Iraq was posted by Mehr News on September 26 days before the rocket attack. He has faced struggles unifying pro-Iranian elements in Iraq. Nevertheless, such high level visits, including the Iraqi Foreign Minister travelling to Iran, has sometimes foreshadowed attacks on US and western interests.
Implications for Kurdistan region
The Kurdistan region is concerned about further Iranian-backed provocations. As US forces may concentrate there, the likelihood that pro-Iranian groups could seek to destabilize the region could increase. The region already must balance a conflict in the mountains between Turkey, which has bases there, and the Kurdistan Workers Party.
The KRG has been facing a rising crisis with Covid-19 and the cutting of government salaries due to an oil price crisis. It is investing in infrastructure projects and has sought amicable relations with Turkey and engagement with Iran. The growing role of the PMU in neighboring provinces however threaten the three provinces of the Kurdish region.
Washington has quietly transferred some forces and personnel to Erbil and the region. This potentially creates vulnerability in the wake of the rocket attack. The KRG has prevented Iranian Kurdish dissidents from attacks on Iran in the past to reduce tensions. Erbil is also concerned about attempts by Ankara to push for a second border crossing into Iraq. This means that the region is at a crossroads between Iran and Turkey’s role in Iraq and the future US role in Iraq.
Sources in Erbil said that the region is concerned about more Iranian-backed attacks. While the US has said that after the strike on Soleimani in January that “contested deterrence” has been maintained, the recent attack appears to belie that claim. The KRG is secured by the Peshmerga and its borders are far enough from Erbil that pro-Iranian groups must resort to larger missiles. The use of larger missiles will also point a finger directly at Iranian involvement, as opposed to the usual plausible deniability of pointing to new armed groups using 107mm rockets, which are more widely available. Moving large missiles around Iraq requires the knowledge of the many PMU checkpoints in the countryside and this illustrates direct approval by high levels of the PMU and Tehran.
The Kurdistan region is concerned that Kadhimi, like his predecessors, will not be able to rein in the attacks. Sources point to the tendency in Washington to believe that various Iraqi leaders, from Haider Abadi to Muqtada al-Sadr are nationalists, as opposed to being relatively close to Iran. Tehran has long experience working closely with Iraqi political parties, tribes, religious leaders and locals. This is a hurdle to having relatively small forces such as the ICTS find the culprits to the recent attack. No one has been charged for dozens of previous attacks, including those that killed Iraqi civilians.
The attack on Erbil on September 30 was therefore symbolic of a much larger process taking place in Iraq. It was carried out from an area controlled by a brigade linked to Badr and the PMU. It fits a pattern of Iranian-backed attacks and appears to be a message from Iran and pro-Iranian groups regarding the KRG and the US presence. Attempts to move the brigade back, or change its role have been frustrated in the past.
*MECRA’s researcher in Iraq asked to remain confidential due to recent security threats.
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