The rocket that targeted a major gasfield in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region on Wednesday was another warning shot from Iran-linked groups to Kurds over ambitions to export gas to the international market, officials and analysts told The National.
The assault against Khor Mor gas field was the latest in a series of attacks against oil infrastructure in the Kurdish region since April.
Local officials said Katyusha rockets were fired, a catch-all term that usually refers to highly inaccurate 107mm rockets made by Iranian or Chinese defence companies.
It is also the first attack in the province of Sulaymaniyah, which has long been under the control of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, one of two main political parties that control the three-province region.
Other attacks hit sites in the nearby provinces of Erbil and Dahuk that are under the control of PUK rivals the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The KDP has strong ties to Turkey, which has soldiers based in Iraq to fight Turkish-Kurdish separatists in the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK).
Several prominent Iran-backed groups have warned the Kurds over their ties to Ankara, calling the Turkish presence an occupation, and demanding that the KDP cease building foreign energy relations, especially regarding oil and gas exports through Turkey.
The KDP's recent alliance with the arch-rival of Iran-backed groups, Moqtada Al Sadr, is causing further tensions.
By contrast, the PUK has historically had good relations with Iran-backed parties, so many were taken by surprise by Wednesday’s attack.
Rocket had 'multiple messages'
During Iraq's drawn-out government formation, the PUK teamed up with the Iran-backed Co-ordination Framework, Mr Al Sadr's rival political bloc. It has been pushing to name its senior member, Iraqi President Barham Salih, for a second term as president, against the wishes of the KDP.
“Amid the deep divisions and problems in Iraq, that rocket had multiple messages,” Hadi Jalo chairman of the Political Decision think tank in Baghdad, told The National.
“The interesting thing is that Sulaymaniyah has been another place to send messages,” Mr Jalo said.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Mr Jalo says the message could be from “domestic political players who are squabbling over forming the new government as well as regional ones who want to stop Kurds' plans to export gas”.
Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masrour Barzani, who is a senior member of KDP, has been wooing Europe by touting the region's gas export capabilities as an alternative to Russian supplies.
Khor Mor field is at the heart of this plan.
It is one of the major operating fields in Iraq with huge reserves and promising production that not only has the ability to meet local consumption but also to export to international markets.
In 2007, Dana Gas and Crescent Petroleum won the rights to to appraise, develop, produce, market and sell hydrocarbons from Khor Mor and nearby Chemchemal fields.
The field is being developed by Pearl Consortium which is led by UAE’s Dana Gas and Crescent Petroleum and Dana Gas with partners OMV of Austria, MOL of Hungary and RWE.
Production started in 2008, sending gas to power stations in the cities of Chemchemal, Bazian and Erbil, making the Kurdish region the first to use gas for electricity in Iraq on such a scale.
To date, all of the gas produced by the field has been used for in-country power generation, providing fuel for more than 80 per cent of the Kurdistan region.
Dana Gas said that production rose by 50 per cent in 2018 from 305 million standard cubic feet per day to 452 million by the end of 2021, together with 15,000 barrels per day of condensate and more than 1,000 tonnes of liquefied petroleum gas.
Last year, the KDP-led Kurdish government signed a contract with domestic energy company KAR Group to extend a gas pipeline from the fields to Erbil and then to Dohuk, close to the Turkish border.
Once the pipeline reaches Dohuk, it could easily be extended a few more kilometres to Turkey, paving the way for gas exports to Europe.
But the Kurds' ambitions to export gas face many hurdles.
These include the deep division between the KDP and PUK, with the KDP widely regarded as dominating the energy sector in the region.
In an interview with Reuters early this month, PUK President Bafel Talabani complained that his party was not kept informed about energy sector decisions.
"Gas won't go out of Kurdistan the way the oil has, with that level of mismanagement and lack of transparency — over my dead body," Mr Talabani said.
Iran missile attack hit villa of Kurdish businessman
In March, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired 12 ballistic missiles at the region, hitting the villa of KAR Group chief executive Baz Karim.
Tehran claimed that the house was a "strategic centre" for Israel and the attack was retaliation for an Israeli air raid that killed two of its members in Syria. Iran did not provide evidence and the KRG and Baghdad strongly denied the allegations.
Mr Jalo believes the latest attack may have been planned by a “regional or international player like Russia as a warning shot to the Kurds not to push forward with their plans and eye the European market”.
An official with PUK told The National that the attack is a message to Erbil rather than Sulaymanyah.
"It has been proven that plans to export gas are not acceptable by many countries and that the region should stay away from them," he said.
"Maybe in the future and with Baghdad's consent this plan can be materialised," he said.