Iran Attacks Kurdish Groups in Iraq

On September 24, Iran launched several days of attacks—deploying artillery, ballistic missiles and drones—on Kurdish separatist groups harbored in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish area. The operations “will continue in order to ensure viable border security, punish criminal terrorists, and hold officials (of the Kurdish Regional Government) accountable towards international regulations and their legal duties,” the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warned. Iraq and the United States condemned the assault.

Iranian authorities blamed the exiled Kurdish groups for protests that erupted after the death in detention of Mahsa Amini. The 22-year-old Kurd was detained for improper hijab, or head covering, on September 13; she died three days later. Some of the most intense protests were in Kurdish areas in northwest Iran. Kurdish opposition groups voiced support for the protests but did claim responsibility for them.

The IRGC hit the bases or positions of at least four Kurdish opposition groups, including:

  • The Komala Party in the village of Zakwezela in Sulaymaniyah province.
  • The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) in Koya near Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
  • The Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) in Kirkuk province.
  • The Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) in Erbil province.

On September 28, the IRGC launched 73 ballistic missiles and dozens of drones on 42 targets across 250 miles in northern Iraq. At least 13 people were killed, and 58 were injured, according to local officials. “At least two children were injured, and one pregnant woman was killed,” UNICEF reported. A primary school was reportedly hit.

During the attack, a U.S. F-15 jet shot down an Iranian Mojer-6 drone that appeared to threaten U.S. forces deployed near Erbil. “Such indiscriminate attacks threaten innocent civilians and risk the hard-fought stability of the region,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement. No U.S. officials or military personnel were harmed, but Omar Mahmoudzadeh, a U.S. citizen, was reportedly killed. The 59-year-old, Iranian by birth, had moved from the United States to Iraq in 2019 to join the PDKI. 

Both the central government in Baghdad and the regional government in Erbil condemned Tehran. “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 Kurdistan government said on September 28. Iraq summoned the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad the next day to protest the bombardment. The “crime” represented Iran’s “encroachment on Iraq’s sovereignty,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The United States condemned the attacks as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. In a statement, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said:

"The United States strongly condemns the drone and missile attack launched against Iraq’s Kurdistan region earlier today.  We stand with Iraq’s leaders in the Kurdistan region and Baghdad in condemning these attacks as an assault on the sovereignty of Iraq and its people.  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.  Iran cannot deflect blame from its internal problems and the legitimate grievances of its population with attacks across its borders.  Its 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.  The United States will continue to pursue sanctions and other means to disrupt Iran’s destabilizing activities across the Middle East region." 

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for “an immediate de-escalation” and urged “respect for Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” In a tweet, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Baghdad said that Iraq should not be treated as the region’s backyard. “Rocket diplomacy is a reckless act with devastating consequences.”


Kurdish Flashpoint

Iran and its neighbors have long perceived the Kurds as a threat due to their numbers, wide geographic presence, and quest for autonomy or independence. At least 25 million Kurds are spread across Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never had a modern state.  

Kurdistan regional mapSome 10 percent of Iran’s 84 million population are Kurds. They are Iran’s third largest ethnic group after Persians and Azeris. For decades, Kurds have faced suppression and neglect by the central government. Several Kurdish groups have waged armed campaigns. Iran considers them terrorist organizations.  

Iran has periodically launched missiles into northern Iraq. It has characterized the cross-border attacks as defensive. In 2018, the IRGC fired seven missiles at the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party – Iran (KDP-I) and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) in Koya. At least 11 people were killed, and dozens were wounded, including the PDKI’s secretary general. 

The last major attack occurred in March 2022. Iran launched a dozen ballistic missiles on Erbil. The target was a villa belonging to Baz Karim Barzinji, the CEO of an oil company. The IRGC claimed that it targeted facilities used by Israeli intelligence. “Several times in the past, Iraq’s territory was used against Iran by third parties including terrorist groups such as Kurdish militants, the United States and the Zionist entity (of Israel),” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said on March 14.


Timeline of Iranian Attacks

Sept. 24, 2022: The IRGC launched artillery strikes from Iran’s West Azerbaijan province targeting “headquarters of anti-Iranian terrorists” in northern Iraq. “These operations ... will continue in order to ensure viable border security, punish criminal terrorists and hold officials (of the Kurdish Regional Government) accountable towards international regulations and their legal duties,” the IRGC said in a statement. Shells first hit the mountainous areas of Barzin Gur Saya and Horne near Iraq’s border with Iran. The mayor of Sedekan reported that there were no casualties.

Sept. 25, 2022: Iran continued shelling remote areas of Erbil province in northern Iraq. The IRGC urged local civilians to stay away from the bases of militant groups. No casualties were reported.

Sept. 26, 2022: The IRGC continued artillery strikes in Erbil province for the third consecutive day. Iran also launched drone strikes on Iranian Kurdish dissidents. “Today, three times, the Islamic Republic (of Iran) bombed the Halgurd Mountain side where our forces are based,” Atta Nasir, a central committee member of the Komala party, said. The mayor of Sedekan again confirmed that there were no casualties. “Thankfully, no one was hurt, but farmers lost farm buildings and sheep,” he said.

Sept. 27, 2022: The IRGC, using artillery and drones, continued attacking targets in Erbil province for a fourth consecutive day. The IRGC claimed it targeted bases of the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK). The mayor of Qasre said that an explosive-laden drone exploded in Marga village. But no casualties were reported.

Sept. 28, 2022: The IRGC escalated its campaign in northern Iraq. It claimed to have launched 73 missiles and dozens of armed drones at 42 targets across a 250-mile-wide area. The IRGC targeted three Iranian Kurdish opposition groups – the Komala Party, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), and the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). Tehran had blamed Kurdish groups for supporting protests inside Iran.

The strikes killed at least 13 people and wounded at least 58 others. Civilians, including children, were reportedly among the dead and injured. The PDKI reported that it was targeted with “dozens” of suicide drones. The Komala Party also reported being hit by drones and the PAK stated that at least six of its members were killed.

The United States scrambled an F-15 jet to intercept a drone that appeared to threaten U.S. forces near Erbil. In a statement, U.S. Central Command condemned Iran’s behavior. “Such indiscriminate attacks threaten innocent civilians and risk the hard-fought stability of the region.”

Sept. 29, 2022: The IRGC continued shelling targets in northern Iraq for the sixth consecutive day. The Saqer and Berbizin districts of Erbil were hit from the previous night until the morning, according to local Kurdish forces. The Komala Party reported that three of its members were injured in the attacks.

Sept. 30, 2022: The IRGC continued artillery strikes for the seventh consecutive day. It targeted Sedekan, but no casualties were reported. The deputy commissioner of Koya, Erbil province stated that 600 families had evacuated their homes due to Iran’s campaign.

Major General Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, warned the United States to not interfere. “If Americans carry out any action against Iranian drones, the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran will respond to their hostile measure," Bagheri said. “For the time being, we do not have any action against Americans.” A U.S. jet had downed an Iranian drone on September 28.

Oct. 1, 2022: The IRGC launched artillery strikes for the eighth consecutive day. It targeted Samilan, in Choman district, Sedekan, and the villages of Saqer, Barzein, Parez, and Katine. The IRGC also launched five rockets targeting the Komala party headquarters on Mount Halgurd, according to Hengaw, a human rights group.

The inhabitants of six villages evacuated due to the attacks, a Sedekan official said. “The locals, who make a living off livestock and agriculture, had to leave their farms and cattle for safety.”

Oct. 2, 2022: The IRGC launched attacks, with drones and artillery, for the ninth consecutive day. It targeted Komala and KDPI bases around Sedekan and the Saqer and Berbizin mountain regions near Choman, Erbil province. A drone also exploded in Warda village. Komala and KDPI did not report any casualties.

Oct. 3, 2022: The IRGC launched artillery strikes for the 10th consecutive day, targeting the Saqer and Berbizin mountain region, as well as Sedekan. The attacks reportedly started early in the morning and lasted through the afternoon. No casualties were reported.

Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, the commander of IRGC ground forces, cited the “illegal entry of armed teams linked with terrorist groups” into Iran as the reason for the campaign. “For this purpose, we first started shelling the bases of terrorists on the borders of our country with artillery and rockets, and then we hit the bases of terrorist elements up to 130 kilometers (81 miles) deep from the borders of our country,” he said.

Oct. 4, 2022: The IRGC attacked Kurdish groups for the 11th consecutive day. It launched suicide drones and artillery strikes around the Saqer and Berbizin mountain region as well as six villages around the Zere valley of Sedekan. The IRGC used a Mohajer-6 drone in one attack on a village near Sedekan.

Komala Party officials said that Komala’s headquarters outside of Sulimaniyah were targeted and that two people were injured in the attacks. At least 17 people had reportedly died, including civilians, and more than 50 had been injured since the start of the attacks. An Iraqi Kurdish military official claimed that Iran had moved troops to the Iran-Iraq border but had not invaded.

Oct. 5, 2022: The IRGC attacked for the 12th consecutive day, targeting dissident positions around the Berbizin and Saqer mountain region. The IRGC used rocket launchers, precision-strike weapons, and drones, according to Iranian media. Iranian media also reported that the attacks targeted a dissident group leader and resulted in “heavy losses.”

Oct. 6, 2022: The IRGC launched artillery strikes for the 13th consecutive day. Iran targeted the Sedekan area and hit the villages of Gawarasya, Nawruba, and Katina. No casualties were reported.

Oct. 7, 2022: Iran continued artillery shelling for the 14th consecutive day. Iran targeted the Mount Hassary Sakran area in northern Erbil province. During a phone call, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned his Iraqi counterpart that Iran would “not tolerate the continuation of aggression and terrorist acts by groups that have taken refuge in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and targeted Iran's national security.”

Oct. 8, 2022: Iran reportedly paused its attacks on Iraqi Kurdistan.

Oct. 9, 2022: The IRGC announced a cessation of military operations but warned that it could resume attacks if Iraqi Kurdish officials do not rein in the Iranian Kurdish groups. Iraq must prevent “parts of its soil from being used for the violation of the security of Iranian citizens and border guards,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said during a press conference on the following day.

Nov. 14, 2022: The IRGC launched missile and drone attacks on two Iranian Kurdish insurgent groups near the cities of Koya and Sulimaniyah. Two were killed and another 10 were injured, according to early reports. Iran reportedly targeted a KDPI base near Koya. KDPI deputy Amanj Zebaii claimed that the IRGC used Fateh-110 ballistic missiles. In Sulimaniyah, a senior Komala Party leader claimed that the IRGC used at least four drones to target the group’s bases.

Nov. 20, 2022: During a nighttime attack, the IRGC launched surface-to-surface missile and drone strikes. The KDPI and the Komala Party were targeted in Koya, Erbil, and Sulimaniyah. The mayor of Erbil, Nabaz Abdulhamid, claimed that two Iranian drones had crashed into the Jazhnikan refugee camp, but no injuries reported. 

General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command, condemned the attack. “Such indiscriminate and illegal attacks place civilians at risk, violate Iraqi sovereignty, and jeopardize the hard-fought security and stability of Iraq and the Middle East.”

Nov. 21, 2022: The Revolutionary Guards launched missiles and suicide drones on Iranian Kurdish opposition groups. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said that positions in Perdi, north of Kirkuk, and the Degala region, east of Erbil, were hit. The headquarters of the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) was among the targets. “We had taken our precautions and emptied the premises, there were no casualties,” said Khalil Nadr, a PAK spokesman.

In a statement, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price condemned Iran’s “brazen violations of Iraq’s territorial integrity” and urged Tehran to cease the attacks.


Photo Credits: Map of Kurdish Inhabited Areas via Al Jazeera English (CC by SA)
Some of the information in this article was originally published on September 29, 2022.