Iraq’s top diplomat in Washington, D.C., cried foul Friday over Kurdish government charges that Iran backed Iraq’s campaign to retake Kirkuk.
“The KRG has been mounting what I call a campaign of quasi-disinformation, trying to paint this as an Iranian-led affair,” Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S. Fareed Yasseen said of the Kurdish Regional Government claims, in remarks to reporters Friday.
Kurdish officials insist Iran had a hand in driving their Peshmerga forces out of Kirkuk – and CIA chief Mike Pompeo confirmed Thursday that the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds force, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, was in Kirkuk during this week’s operation by the Iraqi military.
The Iraqi diplomat’s rhetorical clash with the Kurds highlights the confusion swirling around this week’s operation. Baghdad is casting the Kirkuk move as a return to business as usual, as it takes back control of an area that it held before the so-called Islamic State seized it. The Kurds, meanwhile, have stressed Iran’s role in what the Iraqi government has dubbed a sovereign affair.
Iraqi forces seized the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk on Monday and this week took over swathes of territory that had been held by the Kurds since 2014 when they helped drive out ISIS militants. The advance on the city came after weeks of escalating tensions in the wake of the controversial September 25 referendum that saw 92 percent of Iraqi Kurds voting in favor of independence.
The New York Times reported that Iran helped broker an agreement for some Kurdish forces to abandon Kirkuk and for Iraqi forces to seize the city, and Iranian and Iranian-backed forces supported the advance.
“We are very confident” Iran’s Suleimani and his representatives “had a very clear and instrumental role in what happened in Kirkuk,” Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG Representative to the U.S., told The Cipher Brief. “I’m not saying that Prime Minister Abadi didn’t want to go into Kirkuk. He did,” she added.
In a New York Times op-ed this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi wrote that “the redeployment this week of Iraqi forces to parts of Kirkuk and other areas in northern Iraq is consistent” with his mandate to act in accordance with the Iraqi constitution.
Yasseen — who called the referendum unconstitutional and “a bit meaningless” given independence is an “aspirational” goal for the Kurds — said the government’s actions this week were an expression of “Iraqi agency.” He emphasized that the situation is a “sovereign Iraqi issue” and said this was part of Baghdad’s “intention” to apply the constitution fully by re-establishing border controls and using federal forces to restore areas back to the government’s control.
The ambassador said that in the wake of this “re-deployment” of Iraqi federal forces in Kirkuk, Abadi’s actions have been “conciliatory” toward Kurdish leaders. The prime minister wants a dialogue moving forward, Yasseen told reporters.
The ambassador added he would be “surprised” if troops advanced further, including to Erbil, the capital of the KRG, “unless there was a provocation.”
Kurdish representative Abdul Rahman said the U.S. should bring both parties to the negotiating table.
“The crucial thing is Erbil and Baghdad need to begin talking,” she said. “We have offered to talk with an open agenda, no conditions, and we are urging the U.S. to use its leverage encourage both sides to start talking.”
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement Friday that “all parties should engage in dialogue now on the basis of the Iraqi constitution, as Prime Minister Abadi offered and the Kurdistan Regional Government accepted publicly.”
American officials seemed taken aback by the attack early this week, with the Pentagon seeking to cast the fighting as an isolated incident stemming from a “misunderstanding” and President Donald Trump weighing in to say that “we don’t like the fact that they are clashing.”
When asked by The Cipher Brief about when the U.S. was informed about the military operation this week and what level of contacts there were prior to the advance, Yasseen hedged.
“We’re an alliance, so I would think it would make sense the Iraqi government informed the United States, certainly on the ground, but this is, again, a sovereign Iraqi issue,” he said.
As for conversations with U.S. counterparts on the situation, Yasseen said they are “ongoing.”
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.