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Iranian Incursion Into Iraqi Kurdistan Keeps Regional Players Guessing

A Kurdish PJAK (Free Life Party of Kurdistan) rebel inspects an alleged Iranian artillery crater near Qandil, in Iraq, in April 2008.
WASHINGTON -- Just days after Tehran sent a large contingent of its troops across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iranians were claiming a resounding victory over the Kurdish insurgent group targeted in the assault.

A local commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Colonel Delavar Ranjbarzadeh, told Iranian news agency IRNA on July 18 that his forces had inflicted a "heavy and historic defeat" on the Kurdish insurgent group PJAK (Free Life Party of Kurdistan), which, he said, had lost "a large number" of its members in fierce fighting. Ranjbarzadeh gave no casualty figures. According to reports from Iranian state-sponsored news organizations, three members of the IRGC were wounded in the operation. Tehran said it acted to prevent the PJAK from conducting attacks against targets in Iran.

The same day, according to AP, the PJAK claimed to have killed 53 Iranian guards and wounded 43 in clashes that were still continuing as of this writing.

Earlier this month, on July 13, Iran's Press TV reported that Tehran had deployed 5,000 troops along the country's northwestern borders with Iraq. On July 14, the IRGC announced that it had crossed the border, capturing three PJAK bases.

The PJAK is a militant Kurdish group that aims to topple the clerical government in Tehran and establish a federal system that would grant broad autonomy to Iran's ethnic minorities. It has been declared a terrorist group by the United States.

The incursion by Iranian troops comes at a particularly sensitive moment. In recent weeks, Washington has called on the Baghdad government to allow U.S. troops to extend their stay in Iraq. The current timetable agreed on by the two countries dictates that all American combat troops leave the country by the end of this year.

Tehran accuses Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, of aiding the insurgents without the knowledge of the central government in Baghdad -- a claim strenuously rejected by Kurdish officials.

"PJAK does not have any region [under its control] in Iraqi Kurdistan and Massoud Barzani does not even have any political contact with it," says Hashem Karimi, a London-based expert on Kurdish affairs. He says another Kurdish group, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), does have bases near the Iranian border, though their operations are directed primarily against Turkey.

Independent analysts say there have been few reports of PJAK activity in recent months. The large scale of the operation, they say, raises questions about Tehran's intentions.

Experts speculate that the Iranian government is unnerved by political developments in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurds enjoy broad cultural and linguistic rights and have built up a range of democratic institutions -- creating an appealing example for Iran's own restive Kurdish minority. The regional government can also boast considerable success in economic development, another achievement that contrasts favorably with the situation in Iran's Kurdish areas.

Tehran is also concerned about the presence and activities of Iranian Kurdish parties that are based in Iraqi Kurdistan. The current operation could be aimed at curtailing the activities of these parties, which include the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (DPIK) and a socialist party known as Komala.

"Iran uses the military activities of these parties [in the Kurdish regional government] as a pretext [for military operations]," says Karimi. "In fact, the DPIK and Komala have given up armed struggle and they only conduct political and publicity work."

The Iranian incursion is presumably also aimed at furthering Iranian influence in Iraq. By launching the operation, Iran may be trying to pressure the Kurds, who remain among the strongest advocates of a prolonged U.S. presence in Iraq. The Kurds, says Karimi, fear that a withdrawal of U.S. troops will open the door to greater Iranian involvement in Kurdistan -- as well as inviting activities by Sunni terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.

Iran views any continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq as a threat to its own interests in the country and hopes to leverage its close ties to many of Iraq's Shi'ite groups to its own advantage after U.S. forces leave. Meanwhile, other regional powers such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are eager to prevent Tehran from capitalizing on the U.S. troop pullout. Some experts think the incursion into Kurdistan may be part of an Iranian plan to boost its position in Iraq.

However, Patrick Clawson, a Middle East scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees Iran's operation as rooted in its security concerns.

"If the Iranian forces remain confined to the area in the Qandil mountains where PJAK has got its main base and other isolated mountain regions, then this Iranian incursion really has quite limited significance for broader Iraqi policy and the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations and Iranian-Iraqi relations," Clawson says. "This is more a specific problem about a terrorist group operating in a very rugged and isolated region of Iraq that is threatening Iran."