Erbil: For over two months, near-daily attacks have targeted facilities hosting US-led coalition forces stationed in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).
However, residents of nearby areas have become inured to the sound of the attacks and are more concerned with economic issues, they say. Some attacks have caused substantial damage, with only a handful hitting areas outside bases housing foreign forces.
The damage resulting from job losses and unpaid wages is felt more keenly here. Many are also concerned about what might happen if US forces were to leave, as parts of the region draw ever closer to Iran.
After months of massive financial losses due to the shutting down of an oil pipeline between the KRI and Turkey in late March following a ruling by an arbitration court, the region can ill afford the loss of investment that would inevitably follow a withdrawal of US forces.
The 4 January assassination of a commander in Iraq’s official armed forces, allegedly by the US, may have made this possibility more likely, residents of the region claim.
Over 100 attacks on facilities hosting US forces
A US Department of Defense official who asked not to be identified told Al Majalla on 2 January that US and coalition forces had been attacked at least 118 times between 17 October and 2 January, with 52 of the attacks occurring in Iraq and 66 in Syria.
These attacks, he noted, had been conducted “by a mix of one-way attack drones, rockets, mortars, and close-range ballistic missiles”.
US and coalition forces had been attacked at least 118 times between 17 October and 2 January, with 52 of the attacks occurring in Iraq and 66 in Syria.
The 4 January attack on a Popular Mobilisation Unit (PMU) logistics base in an eastern area of Baghdad is likely to inflame tensions further.
US officials told Western media outlets later in the day that the US had, in fact, conducted the strike. No official statement, however, had been released by the time of the publication of this article.
A commander of a PMU brigade part of the Iran-linked armed faction Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN) was apparently the target of the attack.
The US has targeted HHN in the past and considers it part of a shadowy group known as the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which has claimed responsibility for most of the recent attacks on facilities hosting US forces.
The group is widely assumed to be linked to Iran if not actually controlled by Iraq's eastern neighbour. The justification given for attacks on bases in Iraq and Syria is the US's continued support for Israel in its war on Gaza.
The group claims it targets "Zionist" bases in the KRI despite regional authorities repeatedly denying that there are Israeli forces in the region.
This claim has been made for years, but no evidence has been provided.
In 2021, Iran and Iran-linked militias carried out multiple attacks on several areas of the Kurdistan Region. On March 13 of that year, a dozen ballistic missiles were shot at Erbil in an attack claimed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Iran claimed at that time that Erbil was hosting "Israeli spies". A subsequent investigation found no basis for such allegations.
Iran later accused Iranian Kurdish opposition parties with armed wings operating in exile in the KRI of supporting protesters in Iran with Israeli support and attacked these groups as well.
The justification given for attacks on bases in Iraq and Syria is the US's continued support for Israel in its war on Gaza.
Shadow games with no end in sight
A 25 December attack on Erbil Air Base injured three US service members — one of whom was transferred to Germany in critical condition. This was followed by US retaliatory strikes later in the day on positions allegedly held by the Iran-linked Iraqi armed group Kataib Hezbollah further south in areas outside of the KRI.
Following that retaliation, the two sides temporarily settled once again into the tenuous pattern that had been established in previous weeks: cheap drones and other munitions used against US forces on a near-daily basis, expensive defence systems intercepting them when possible or announcements of minimal or no damage afterwards when not intercepted.
Many see the attacks simply as a "message" of the continued presence and capabilities of armed factions part of the Iran-led 'Axis of Resistance' amid the war in Gaza and ever more attention to the Red Sea and attacks on ships transiting through it.
Erbil blames Baghdad for 'cowardly attacks'
An attack on a Peshmerga base late on 30 December sparked mutual recriminations between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil.
"We hold those (outlaw) groups and the federal government responsible for these cowardly attacks because these outlaw groups are armed by and receive salaries from the federal government, and they roam around before the eyes of the Iraqi government, transporting weapons, rockets, and drones and carrying out terrorist attacks on official and military institutions," KRG spokesman Peshawa Hamramani said in a statement issued shortly after the attack.
KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani wrote on the X social media platform on 31 December, "I'm deeply alarmed by last night's terrorist attack on a Peshmerga base northeast of Erbil. I condemn the outlaws and their collaborators in the strongest terms possible. We know well the issues at play here and the outlaws behind them and have a right to defend our people."
I'm deeply alarmed by last night's terrorist attack on a Peshmerga base northeast of Erbil. I condemn the outlaws and their collaborators in the strongest terms possible.
We know well the issues at play here and the outlaws behind them, and have a right to defend our people.
"They use state money and weapons to attack the Kurdistan Region, destabilise the whole of the country, and risk renewed conflict in a nation that has seen enough bloodshed," he added, calling on Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani to "take practical measures to stop and sanction the groups and reassert control in territories used to launch the attacks."
Baghdad officials then claimed the KRG officials were spouting "lies".
"The federal government expresses its astonishment at the statement of the spokesperson for the government of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which included various unfounded and irresponsible accusations, mixing misleading information and baseless lies," Iraqi government spokesperson Basem al-Awadi said in a statement in response.
Awadi added that the government had opened an investigation into the attacks.
Many see the attacks simply as a "message" of the continued presence and capabilities of armed factions part of the Iran-led 'Axis of Resistance' amid the war in Gaza.
Attacks thwarted but cyber ones 'soon'
The US DoD official told Al Majalla on 2 January that while most of the attacks on US and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria "since 17 October have been largely unsuccessful, in addition to protecting our forces, the counter-IS (Islamic State) mission continues as well as the development of our partner forces".
He added that while he could not discuss the specifics of "our force protection measures, we have a variety of ground-based systems to engage and thwart incoming attacks meant to harm our forces."
Meanwhile, other sorts of attacks may soon intensify.
A Kurdish drone expert told the local Kurdish-language media outlet Rudaw in an interview posted on the website on 2 January that a "major cyber-attack will be launched against the Kurdistan Region in the near future".
The expert, Shwan Jaff, said that drones being used in attacks in this period on the Kurdistan Region are launched from the neighbouring province Nineveh and that the "parts for the drones are imported from China and then brought into Iraq by (Iran's) Quds Force".
He claimed that both the Iran-linked Badr Organisation and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba – both of which have brigades in the official PMU - were known to receive these weapons but that they now also have their own domestic drone-making facilities.
Economic issues and 'isolation'
A Kurdish man in his thirties who works in the media sector in the KRI told Al Majalla in a conversation in early January in Erbil that the major concern right now for inhabitants of KRI is the dire state of the economy in the region and a lack of jobs.
He criticised inhabitants of the city of Sulaimaniyah, close to the Iranian border, for being ever closer to Iran and the central government, driving a wedge deeper between what he said is an already heavily divided Kurdish population.
"Notice that all the attacks (in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq) are happening in areas under the control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)," the largest party in KRI with strong support in the Erbil and Dohuk provinces, "and not those of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (Puk)," the KDP's rival, he noted.
"The PUK are under the influence of Iran. Iran tells them what to do," the man claimed, "and thus doesn't target them. They are their allies."
Multiple security sources have said that the PUK collaborates closely with the central government compared with the KDP, which often clashes with Baghdad over various issues.
The current government in Baghdad is also very close to Iran.
The PUK made a strong showing in the 18 December provincial council elections held across Iraq's provinces, except those in KRI in the Kirkuk region. This oil-rich region remains disputed between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad but has been under central government control since 2017.
Meanwhile, The KDP lost several seats in the Nineveh region, where parties close to Shiite-led armed factions did well.
However, of more concern than provincial council seats here in Erbil is the continued shutdown of oil exports from the KRI to Turkey.
In March of last year, Turkey halted Kurdish oil exports through a pipeline between the two countries after an international arbitration court in Paris ruled Ankara had violated a clause of a 1973 agreement between it and Baghdad.
KRG President Nechirvan Barzani has recently stated that the resumption of oil exports through this pipeline depends on Baghdad, not Turkey.
The Association of the Petroleum Industry of Kurdistan (APIKUR) said in October that the Iraqi government, the KRG and international oil companies had lost $7bn in revenues since the pipeline's closure.
Despite numerous talks between Baghdad and Erbil, the matter remained unresolved as of early January.
Many residents of the KRI see this continued shutdown of the pipeline, the constant barrage of attacks and attempts to get their US supporters out of the country as a means to further isolate and impoverish them.
When asked whether he thought Iraqi Kurds trusted the Americans, the man in his thirties said, "But who else do we have to support us?".
"Europe is too weak and will leave if the US does," he added, and "if Iran were in control here, it would be like Yemen or Syria."