Iran and Turkey Strike Kurdish Rivals in Iraq as Unrest Grips Baghdad

Iran and Turkey have conducted a series of strikes against rival Kurdish groups in the north of neighboring Iraq at a time when the country's capital has been consumed by political unrest and clashes between protesters and security forces.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps announced Wednesday it had conducted a new round of missile and drone attacks against positions of "terrorist" groups in northern Iraq. The strikes were part of an ongoing operation launched Saturday targeting exiled left-wing Kurdish dissident groups, including the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK).

The groups have a history of conflict with the Islamic Republic, and the Revolutionary Guard accused them of infiltrating Iran's borders to attack security personnel and engage in riots amid nationwide protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman who died last week in police custody.

In its statement on the attacks, the elite Iranian group emphasized "once again, that this operation will continue with determination until the threat is effectively repelled and the headquarters of terrorist groups are dismantled and the authorities of the region fulfill their obligations and responsibilities."

Also on Wednesday, the Turkish Armed Forces announced a separate operation that "neutralized" two members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), another Kurdish separatist group involved in an insurgency against Turkey for four decades. The raid was part of the ongoing Operation Claw-Lock launched in April by Ankara as the latest effort in a years-long cross-border campaign.

The sites of both Iranian and Turkish military activity are under the immediate jurisdiction of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, which condemned Iran's strikes on Wednesday.

"Attacks on opposition groups through the Islamic Republic of Iran's missiles, under any pretext, is an incorrect stance which promotes a misleading interpretation of the course of events," the Kurdish-led administration said Wednesday. "We strongly condemn these continuous attacks which result in the death of civilians, and we call for an end to these violations."

Kurdish authorities have also occasionally criticized Turkish activities, including a disputed incident in July in which Ankara was accused by both the Iraqi and Kurdish governments for an attack that killed nine tourists at a northern resort village. Turkish officials have denied any involvement, instead blaming the PKK for the incident.

The attack and other Turkish incursions have strained relations between Baghdad and Tehran. And while Iran has forged deep influence and robust partnerships in Iraq, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that it would summon the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad "to hand him a strongly worded protest note" over the latest Iranian strikes.

Smoke, from, Iran, missile, strikes, northern, Iraq
Smoke billows following an Iranian cross-border attack in the area of Zargwez, where several exiled left-wing Iranian Kurdish parties maintain offices, less than 10 miles from the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah on September 28. Tehran has clashed for decades with Kurdish dissidents, some of whom allied with Iraq during the deadly 1980s war between the two countries. AFP/Getty Images

U.S. officials also spoke out against the Iranian attacks on Wednesday.

"We strongly condemn Iran's use of ballistic missiles and drone attacks against the Iraqi Kurdistan Region as an unjustified violation of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement. "We are also aware of reports of civilian casualties and deplore any loss of life caused by today's attack."

"Moreover, we further condemn comments from the government of Iran threatening additional attacks against Iraq," he added. "We stand with the people and government of Iraq in the face of these brazen attacks on their sovereignty."

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement echoing Price's condemnation and solidarity with Kurdish and Iraqi leaders. He also accused the Iranian leadership of showing a disregard for human life.

"Iranian leaders continue to demonstrate flagrant disregard not only for the lives of their own people, but also for their neighbors and the core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity enshrined in the UN Charter," Sullivan said. "Iran cannot deflect blame from its internal problems and the legitimate grievances of its population with attacks across its borders."

He also tied Iran's weapons activity in the region with its ongoing arms relationship with Russia at a time when Moscow was mired in a conflict opposed by Washington in Ukraine.

"[Iran's] flagrant use of missiles and drones against its neighbors, as well as its providing of drones to Russia for its war of aggression in Ukraine and to proxies throughout the Middle East region, should be universally condemned," Sullivan said.

"The United States will continue to pursue sanctions and other means to disrupt Iran's destabilizing activities across the Middle East region," he added.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which maintains bases in Iraq's Erbil province that came under Iranian fire, condemned the "unprovoked attack" by the Revolutionary Guard in a statement attributed to spokesperson Army Colonel Joe Buccino. He argued that "such indiscriminate attacks threaten innocent civilians and risk the hard-fought stability of the region."

And while "no US forces were wounded or killed as a result of the strikes and there is no damage to US equipment, Buccino said U.S. forces "brought down an Iranian Mojer-6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle headed in the direction of Erbil as it appeared as a threat to CENTCOM forces in the area."

"CENTCOM personnel operate in Iraq at the invitation of the Government of Iraq to advise, assist, and enable partner forces in the ensuring the lasting defeat of ISIS," he added. "CENTCOM forces, in support of partnered forces in Iraq, are assessing the situation."

U.S. officials have, at times, also criticized Turkish strikes in northern Syria, where the Pentagon has partnered with a Kurdish-led militia called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Ankara considers the SDF, along with its affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG) and Democratic Union Party (PYD), to be linked to the PKK, which is considered to be a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S., Iran and several other nations.

The U.S. has said little of Turkish activities in northern Iraq, however. And though the State Department condemned the deadly resort shelling in July, it did not mention Turkey nor attribute blame for the attack.

Washington and Ankara are fellow members of the NATO Western military alliance, and Turkey's role is seen as particularly critical in various hotspots of U.S. foreign policy, from Syria to Ukraine. Iran, on the other hand, has been a longtime rival of the U.S. and tensions have been especially high since Washington's 2018 exit from a multilateral nuclear deal that has yet to be revived, despite ongoing negotiations.

The U.S. also retains partnerships with Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, in northern Iraq. U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Celeste Wallander traveled to the Kurdish region capital of Erbil last week to sign a new memorandum of understanding with the Kurdish Regional Government on security cooperation against ISIS.

Iran also partnered with both Iraqi troops and Kurdish forces to repel ISIS, but would ultimately work more directly through the Population Mobilization Forces, a coalition of militias whose leadership has continued to vie for power in Iraq.

Sadr, supporters, protest, in, Baghdad, Iraq
Supporters of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr clash with Iraqi security forces in Tahrir Square in the center of Iraq's capital Baghdad on September 28, during a parliament session in the nearby high-security Green Zone across the Tigris river. Three rockets were fired at Baghdad's Green Zone, wounding seven security force personnel, as parliament was holding its first session since deadly unrest in August to vote on the resignation of its speaker. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

And as northern Iraq contended with foreign military operations on two fronts, the capital has continued to face severe political unrest from within.

Tensions have been high since influential Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr withdrew his bloc from parliament in June after being unable to form a majority government, despite winning the most votes in last October's election. His rival, the Coordination Framework, attempted to form a government in his absence, but pro-Sadr elements stormed the parliament in July and engaged in deadly clashes with foes in the Green Zone last month before being called on to withdraw by Sadr himself.

The latest turmoil came as the parliament again attempted to convene to vote on the resignation of Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi. As Sadr's supporters again took to the streets Wednesday, the Iraqi military said that three rockets landed in the Green Zone, injuring seven security personnel.

Both Sadr and his rivals are associated with powerful militia groups with ties to Iran, though Sadr has more recently sought to distant himself from Tehran and present himself as an opponent of all undue foreign influence in Iraq.

Saleh Mohammed al-Iraqi, advisor to Sadr, said "we categorically reject the use of violence and weapons that was carried out by unknown parties" and accused those behind the Green Zone attack "wanting to cause sedition in our beloved Iraq."

He suggested that the attack may be the work of terrorists, remnants of the the Baath Party once led by former President Saddam Hussein or others seeking to discredit efforts for reform in Iraq.

In a statement issued by his press office, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi "directed the security forces to pursue and arrest the perpetrators of the missile bombing attack on the Green Zone," and "stressed the need for the security forces to be committed to their duties in protecting state institutions, public and private properties, and peaceful demonstrators."

As for the demonstrators, the Iraqi premier called on them "to abide by the peacefulness guidelines and the security forces' orders regarding the demonstration places," and "stressed that the current security situation reflects the political situation."

He also "reiterated the call for dialogue between all the forces dealing with the political issue to overcome the current crisis, support the state and its institutions to carry out their tasks, spare citizens the consequences of political conflicts, maintain security, and reject any harm to social peace," stressing "the need for continued cooperation and coordination between the state authorities."

Newsweek has reached out to the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Kurdish Regional Government and the U.S. State Department for comment.