Is Iraqi Kurdistan turning into an arena to settle regional scores?

At a particularly tense time – even by the Middle East’s standards - Iran’s missile attack on Erbil earlier this month shows how cross-border military action deepens the danger of war spreading.

A Kurdish man walks past debris following a missile strike launched by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the Kurdistan region’s capital of Arbil, on January 17, 2024.
A Kurdish man walks past debris following a missile strike launched by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the Kurdistan region’s capital of Arbil, on January 17, 2024.

Is Iraqi Kurdistan turning into an arena to settle regional scores?

A drone attack on one of Iraq’s largest gas fields has led to a temporary suspension of production, resulting in major power cuts across the country’s northern Kurdistan region, officials said on Friday.

No group has claimed responsibility for the explosive drone that struck the Khor Mor gas field in the Sulaimaniya region of northern Iraq overnight.

It damaged a liquid gas storage tank but caused no injuries, according to the field’s United Arab Emirates-based operator, Dana Gas.

US Ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowski condemned the attack, saying it “exposed millions to power outages in mid-winter.”

This was the latest attack in a series of attacks since the most high-profile incident a week ago when the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan was hit with Iranian missiles.

The direct strikes on Erbil came after much speculation of action elsewhere in the Middle East — including Lebanon, Yemen, the Red Sea, and Syria — as Israel’s war on Gaza inflames tension with Iran and its proxies.

But it was Erbil where the action came. Tehran claimed it had “targeted Mossad headquarters, spies, and anti-Iranian terrorist groups” there in retaliation for “terrorist attacks targeting our citizens in Kerman”.

The precise target was the residence of a Kurdish businessman, Bishru Diziyi, proprietor of the Falcon and Empire real estate firms.

Diziyi and two of his children were killed, alongside Iraqi businessman Karam Mikhail, who was visiting the home. This suggests that Iran’s rhetoric masks the true motive for its attack.

The Iranian assault occurred four months after a security agreement was reached between Iran and Iraq. Under this accord, Iraq pledged to disarm Iranian Kurdish political groups on its soil, shut down their bases, and relocate them.

They had already been targeted by previous Iranian missile strikes, resulting in the deaths of dozens of civilian refugees in those camps.

Iran had threatened to intensify its confrontation with these groups, including potential incursions into Iraqi territory, should the Iraqi and Kurdistan governments not uphold their commitments under the agreement.

Tehran claimed it was targeting Mossad headquarters in Erbil. The precise target was the residence of a Kurdish businessman, Bishru Diziy.

Turkish forays

The strike also coincided with an escalation in military confrontations between the Turkish army and Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters within the territory of the Kurdistan region.

During the autumn of 2023, Turkey intensified its military presence in the mountainous regions of Kurdistan, establishing over 40 military bases and checkpoints. Some extended 80km into Iraqi territory.

This assertion is matched by an increased frequency of air strikes launched by Turkey beyond its borders, which now occurs almost daily. These strikes, often executed using drones, target numerous areas, including those in the Sulaymaniyah Governorate bordering Iran.

At the same time, PKK fighters have carried out rapid and effective attacks on Turkish army observation points, killing more than 25 Turkish soldiers in December 2023 alone.

A demonstration in Erbil to protest the Iranian bombing

Diversity of targets

This latest Iranian assault mirrors a similar one launched in the Kurdistan region in March 2022, justified with similar claims.

In the 2022 incident, Iran also targeted the residence of a Kurdish businessman, Baz Barzanji, owner of the Kar Oil Company. Then, an investigative committee established by the Iraqi government found no evidence supporting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's claims that the house was a spy base for coordinating military and security operations against Iran.

Additionally, there have been numerous instances of missile and drone strikes launched by unknown entities closely affiliated with Iran, operating under the general guise of Islamic Resistance.

Turkey has upped its military presence in Kurdistan, establishing over 40 military bases and checkpoints, some 80km into Iraqi territory.

Their stated objective is to "expel American occupation forces", but their targets are diverse, encompassing oil fields, civilian airports, and even camps housing Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Military operations in Kurdistan – whether conducted by Ankara, Tehran, their affiliates, or groups opposing Turkey – all share common characteristics and motivations.

What remains clear is that there is no direct link between the Kurdistan region itself and the justifications employed as pretexts for assaults on the region.

Filling a security void

The inaction of Iraq's central government has been the main catalyst for the rise in military action in its Kurdish territory by various parties.

Throughout the deteriorating situation over the last three years, Baghdad's response has been timid.

It issues condemnations, summons diplomats from the offending nations, and submits formal protest notes. All this makes little impact and is not followed up.

The government even failed to act when the investigation into the Erbil bombings in March 2023 found no evidence to back up Tehran's justification for cross-border strikes.

It has the right. Under the Iraqi Constitution, the central government is empowered to take deterrent actions to safeguard Iraq's sovereignty and national security.

The inaction of Iraq's central government has been the main catalyst for the rise in military action in its Kurdish territory.

In contrast, the roles and capabilities of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces are confined to internal security and border defence.

They lack strategic weapons, including air surveillance and defensive equipment, which fall exclusively under the central government's jurisdiction.

Furthermore, foreign policy decisions ­­– such as reducing diplomatic presence, recalling ambassadors, closing border crossings, and imposing punitive economic and moral sanctions – are solely down to the federal government.

Even escalating disputes to international bodies and institutions falls within the remit of the federal authority, including filing complaints and seeking compensation and assurances from aggressor states.

Lacking core capabilities

Experts point to the discernible disintegration of the Iraqi state, undermining the central government's capacity to fulfil its duties. This fragmentation is most apparent in the government's failure to safeguard Iraqi national security in the Kurdistan region.

The Peshmerga lack strategic weapons, air surveillance and defensive equipment, areas in which the central government has exclusivity.

This issue is a symptom of a broader decline in the government's ability to ensure national security across various Iraqi regions, albeit in more subtle ways, due to a complex array of reasons.

The deterioration of the Iraqi political system to its current state stems from an absence of clarity in defining what constitutes Iraqi national security.

This ambiguity is exacerbated by the profound divisions among Iraqi political factions on this critical issue.

Government institutions lack independence from the major political parties and are not neutral with respect to them. Instead, they fall squarely under the influence of the parties, leading to internal vulnerabilities.

This situation empowers wider regional countries with ambitions to intervene in Iraq, providing them with both the opportunity and capability to do so.


An Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) walks past a graffiti-covered wall as he inspects damage at the party headquarters following an Iranian cross-border attack in the town of Koye.

Read more: Iraqi Kurdistan treads carefully as neighbouring countries ramp up attacks on 'terrorists'

'Sectarian transformations'

The situation is worsened by poor relations between Iraq's central government and the Kurdistan region, which resists the deployment of Iraqi troops. The Constitution recognises the Peshmerga forces as the sole military entity authorised to defend the region.

There is a troubled history in the region for the Iraqi national army, which has been responsible for tens of thousands of civilian casualties in the past.

That was behind the Constitution's arrangements for security and left the local government sure these troops would not be welcome.

Iraq's national army has killed tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians in recent decades. These troops would not be welcome.

Kurds point to "sectarian transformations" that have beset the Iraqi army since the withdrawal of the American forces in 2011, in particular, the effective exclusion of Kurds from Iraq's leadership.

They would instead their Peshmerga fighters be provided with the necessary strategic weaponry to deal with security matters, in what would be a demonstration of trust in them, in line with the responsibilities set out in the Constitution.

No guards at the gate

This combination of factors in Kurdistan makes it a breeding ground for conflict. Military clashes here occur in a security vacuum, owing to the absence of a national Iraqi army and the under-equipment of Peshmerga forces.

Women in the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces participate in a graduation ceremony in Erbil on 15 January 2023.

It means that armed groups and the militaries of neighbouring nations can be offensive here, almost at will, to appeal to their domestic support base in a way that they could not contemplate elsewhere.

Yet as instability spreads on the broader region, the dangers posed by these conditions deepen, not least for reasons of geography.

Kurdistan is situated at the juncture of four nations, each grappling with deep-seated historical conflicts and entangled in overlapping disputes both amongst themselves and with global superpowers.

This amplifies the region's strategic importance at a time of crisis. Additionally, the complexity of the Kurdish issue – and its far-reaching implications, combined with the region's rugged, mountainous terrain – add to the effect.

The danger of spillover

Crucially, the United States and several of its Western allies have retreated from deterrent measures that could provide a security shield for Kurdistan.

Kurdistan is situated at the juncture of four nations, each grappling with deep-seated historic conflicts.

The withdrawal comes despite the proclaimed "strategic political and security partnership" with Kurdistan, particularly in countering terrorism, a commitment these nations profess to uphold as a lasting strategic relationship.

Events in Gaza and Lebanon have shown Iran's reluctance to take action elsewhere.

Similarly, Turkey is restricted from further expansion into Syria. Engagements in Libya, Azerbaijan, and the Horn of Africa do not guarantee internal national security.

Like Tehran and Ankara, the PKK and similar groups view Kurdistan as an ideal location for safe military operations, as no significant reprisals are likely.

The geopolitical forces at work in Kurdistan leave it in need of better security for its own good and for that of the wider region.

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