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Iraq Report: May 18, 2007

Iraq's Kurdish Region Under Increasing Threat

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Iraq's Kurdish region

May 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Two high-profile bomb attacks targeting Kurdish institutions this month have drawn attention to security in the region, which had escaped much of the violence plaguing other areas in Iraq. But threats against the Kurds from Al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups have been growing.

The Kurdistan region government's (KRG) Interior Ministry was attacked by a truck bomb on May 9, killing 14 people and wounding more than 80. Insurgents then targeted the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) office in Makhmur on May 13, killing 33 people and wounding 60 others. Makhmur is a Kurdish-populated town lying just outside the Kurdistan region.

Al-Qaeda Warns The Kurds

The Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for both attacks in Internet postings. In a statement on the May 9 attack, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group said the attack came "in response to the participation of the apostate peshmerga forces with the Safawi [a reference to the Shi'ite-led government in Iraq] government of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki in the so-called 'Baghdad law enforcement plan.'"

Addressing Kurdistan region President Mas'ud Barzani and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the group promised more attacks, adding, "We will not stop attacking you until you withdraw your mercenaries from the Baghdad province and cease to support the Crusaders [U.S.-led coalition forces] and the Safawis."

The Islamic State of Iraq first warned Kurdish soldiers against taking part in the Baghdad security plan in January. "We tell you that the martyrs brigades of the Islamic State of Iraq, particularly the Ansar martyrs [a reference to the terrorist group Ansar Al-Islam, whose bases in Kurdistan were crushed by a U.S. bombing campaign in the opening days of the war] cannot wait to confront you as to speed your arrival in hell," an Internet statement said.

The Kata'ib Kurdistan (Kurdistan Brigades), a group that pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in March, also claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted to the Ansar Al-Islam website, the news website Kurdish Aspect reported on May 10. The brigades are reportedly part of Ansar Al-Islam, which is aligned with Al-Qaeda.

The Iranian Connection

According to Kurdish Aspect, a source from within the Kurdish peshmerga said that Ansar Al-Islam and the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army are reorganizing their ranks and deploying their forces along the Iran-Iraq border. Kurdish leaders have also attributed recent attacks against Kurdish forces in the town of Penjwin to Ansar Al-Islam, saying the group moves freely across the Iran-Iraq border.

Kurdish security sources told local media that the KRG was on alert for a terrorist attack in the days preceding the two incidents, based on intelligence that included detained terrorists' confessions, as well as the discovery of weapons caches.

The offices of Kurdish political parties in the nearby Mosul Governorate have come under increasing attack in recent months, particularly offices belonging to the KDP, which is Kurdistan region President Barzani's party. KDP official Khasro Goran said insurgents were trying to goad the Kurds into a sectarian war, "Al-Zaman" reported on May 1.

Kurdish officials in Irbil undertook new security measures in all three governorates in mid-April following the attacks along the border. One of the measures was the construction of a tunnel and security barricades to segregate Irbil from Kirkuk and Mosul, "Gulf News" reported.

In an apparent response to the Irbil attack, the KRG dispatched 1,000 troops to the Iranian border to help drive out Ansar and Al-Qaeda militants stationed there, according to May 10 media reports. Meanwhile, local residents told newspapers that the militants had threatened non-Muslims. Leaflets circulated in towns inside Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate said the militants are "hunting down those who have converted" to Zoroastrianism and Christianity.

Getting Out The Message

Observations of websites and forums frequented by insurgents in Iraq and their supporters suggest that indeed, the Islamic State of Iraq and Ansar Al-Islam/Sunnah are attempting to gain a foothold on areas in the north. Apart from their stated claim of seeking retribution against the Kurds, their presence in the north would provide them with a valuable gateway for foreign fighters and supplies through the porous Iran-Iraq border.

While Kurdish military officials have in recent days openly acknowledged insurgent traffic across the border, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani reportedly raised the issue of insurgents crossing the Iran-Iraq border during his visit to Iran, which included a meeting with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Kurdistan TV reported on May 11 that the KRG and Iran formed a joint committee to address security issues during Barzani's trip, as well as the possible KRG purchase of electricity from Iran.

The resurgence of insurgent activity in Kurdistan can be seen in the plethora of statements appearing on insurgent websites and forums in recent weeks, and Kata'ib Kurdistan has issued at least one video documenting its attacks.

Moreover, Kurdish-language statements have appeared on forum websites with increasing frequency, suggesting insurgents may be trying to recruit Kurdish fighters to join their cause.

Just The Beginning?

The frequency of attacks against Kurdish targets both in the Kurdish region and neighboring governorates to the south suggest that Kurds will remain under fire for some time to come. The potential consequences of an Al-Qaeda/Ansar campaign would be devastating to the region's economy, stability and governance.

It could prompt Turkey to carry out plans for a large-scale incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan to hunt down PKK militants based there. Or worse yet, Turkey might take steps to secure Turkoman control over Kirkuk, a move that would evoke a violent reaction from Iraqi Kurds.

Moreover, any instability may prompt the Kurds to rethink their hospitality to thousands of Iraqi Arabs, both Sunnis and Shi'a, who have sought refuge in recent months from conflict areas farther south. According to the Iraqi Red Crescent, more than 5,000 Iraqi families, or 30,000 people, have registered as refugees in the city of Irbil over the past two years, "The Christian Science Monitor" reported on April 17.

Should the KRG decide to no longer host its Arab brethren, the displaced will be hard-pressed to find refuge. Newspaper editorials suggest growing public pressure on the KRG to do just that.

Wariness Can't Disguise Interest In U.S. Talks

By Vahid Sepehri
May 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Politicians and legislators in Iran reacted promptly to recent reports that Iranian and U.S. representatives will soon meet in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq. The tone of those responses highlights the allure of a prospective meeting with a near-constant protagonist in Iran's foreign policy discourse.

It will mark one of the very few formal diplomatic engagements between Tehran and Washington since Iran's 1979 revolution and the subsequent severance of mutual diplomatic ties.

No date for the U.S.-Iranian talks has been announced. But Iran's public stance is that -- as with an Iraqi security conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in early May -- it is willing to talk in order to help neighboring Iraq.

The head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, asserted that "talks between Iran and America in Baghdad are to help the Iraqi people and government," and "put a full stop to the present security crisis in Iraq," ISNA reported on May 14. Borujerdi added that Iran's Supreme National Security Council, a key foreign and security policy-making body, should determine who will represent Tehran.

The U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, is expected to represent Washington at the meeting.

Iranian legislators say the United States requested the talks, and they have implied that Iran is in the position of regional strength. At the same time, they have reiterated Iran's persistent distrust of the United States and its motives. They also wonder aloud what Iran might get in return for helping bring stability to Iraq.

What's In It For Us?

Iranian officials frequently claim that Tehran has helped Washington at sensitive junctures in recent years -- including in connection with the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan -- and received little in return. The editor of the conservative Iranian daily "Kayhan" on May 13 accused the United States of "want[ing] talks for [the sake of] talks, not to resolve mutual problems." Editor Hossein Shariatmadari described negotiations as a "great and strategic mistake" that would inflict "irreparable" harm on Iran, ISNA reported. Shariatmadari is widely associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But he is also one of Iran's more outspoken public figures, and his views need not always reflect state policy.

The subject of engagement does not appear to be the "taboo" that it once was in Iran -- particularly during the Khatami presidency.

It goes without saying in Iran that there could be no talks with the United States without the tacit approval of key decision-makers headed by Supreme Leader Khamenei. But Shariatmadari argued that no change in U.S. conduct toward merited any verbal engagement. He said Iran and the United States have "essential" differences related to the nature of their systems, with tense relations an inevitable consequence.

Hossein Nejabat, a member of the parliamentary presidium, took a softer line on May 14. Nejabat said that "if America has asked [Iran] to help with stability in Iraq, and supposing it is sincere" -- which he described as doubtful -- then he said that Iran "will cooperate with it" and "all state institutions and factions confirm" such a position, ISNA reported. Nejabat said Iran and the United States must talk and back "anything that benefits" the Iraqis. But he stressed that Iranians "have to have [their] share in the matter."

Reza Talai-Nik, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, warned that talks yielding "weak" results could prompt the United States to launch a new round of accusations against Iran, ISNA reported. Talai-Nik argued that if "America fails" in the talks, it will "blame and intensify the psychological and political pressures against Iran." He counseled not allowing bilateral talks to become a "crux" of Iranian policy-making toward Iraq.

An 'Open Door'

Some of those same parliamentary voices have hinted at cautious interest in such talks' potential for opening the path toward a tentative rapprochement or broader discussions.

The parliamentary presidium's Nejabat suggested on May 14 that "negotiations about the nuclear dossier are a separate chapter" that might be discussed "whenever the parties accept each other's conditions." He stressed Iran's "many issues" of divergence with the United States, but added that they require "transparent" discussions. Nejabat cited an ongoing dispute over frozen Iranian assets in the United States and what he described as an openly stated U.S. desire for regime change in Iran.

Borujerdi sees a U.S.-Iran meeting as helping the Iraqi people (Fars file photo)

The Security and Foreign Policy Committee's Talai-Nik noted that Iranian officials arrested in the Iraqi city of Irbil in January are still being detained, and said there are "limited grounds" for using talks to benefit the nuclear dossier. Talai-Nik said some agreement and an "approximation" of Iranian and U.S. policies in Iraq could advance the "possibility of reducing other tensions and challenges," although he cited "strategic differences" between the "aims of America and Iran over Iraq" as an obstacle to agreement.

Other legislators from the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee have also commented on the talks' potential beyond Iraq-related matters. Suleiman Jafarzadeh claimed on May 13 that "the Baghdad talks are basically to open the door to formal and open talks between Iran and America." He also urged talks at the foreign ministers' level.

Lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh said on May 13 that the prospective talks alone demonstrate that the two states can resolve "some issues" through dialogue, ISNA reported. He said Baghdad talks could yield positive results if Iran feels there is "good will" on the other side.

Stealing Reformist Thunder

Mohammad Sadr, a deputy foreign minister under the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami, said on May 14 that Tehran should make the talks "comprehensive" to ensure that Iran's needs -- notably in the nuclear area -- are also met. Sadr described Iraq as "Iran's winning card" and said Tehran "must use this winning card in comprehensive negotiations with America, to benefit from the negotiations," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on May 15.

Conservative commentator and journalist Amir Mohebbian argued that Iran must -- in these talks -- ask the United States to put aside "senseless projects" like regime change in Iran and to stop causing "problems" for Iran, Mehr news agency reported on May 14. He said there is no sense in talks wherein Iran would help Washington without reciprocity or reliable commitments on respecting Iranian interests.

Many of these comments suggest that -- whatever Iranian officials' expectations -- the prospect of direct talks with the United States is tantalizing. The subject of engagement does not appear to be the "taboo" that it once was in Iran -- particularly during the Khatami presidency. Indeed reformists -- now outside the halls of power -- have frequently claimed that conservatives would do everything in their power to ensure that they -- and not a reformist-led government -- would initiate any dialogue with the United States. That tack reveals a belief among Iranian politicians that the political leadership could reap benefits -- and added public credibility -- that might be conferred by reduced tensions with the United States.

So even as it proves difficult to promote any relations with a global power frequently regarded as Iran's nemesis, it might be argued that the perspective on limited contacts is not inherently negative.

Perhaps no breakthroughs will occur at these Iranian-U.S. talks. But there is a chance that -- in time -- direct and public contacts between U.S. and Iranian officials will cease to be a rarity.