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Iraq: Kurdish Region Under Increasing Threat

Iraq's Kurdish region (RFE/RL) 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.

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