Iran attacks exiled Kurdish groups in Iraq as protests rage

Tehran has cracked down on demonstrations sparked by the death of a young Kurdish woman

A screen grab from a video released by the Iranian military. Tehran has carried out strikes on Kurdish groups in Iraq. EPA
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As protests flare across Iran over the death of young Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, the Kurdistan region of Iraq has come under bombardment from Iranian forces.

The target has been the long-exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition, installed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein during the war with Iran in the 1980s.

Tehran considers the armed factions to be terrorists and said they were responsible for attacks on its territory.

An Iranian general has accused Kurdish opposition groups of inciting the protests in parts of Iran with a large Kurdish population.

Tehran has cracked down on the nationwide protest movement sparked by Amini's death on September 16. She had been detained by the morality police in Tehran over accusations she breached rules on clothing.

Adel Bakawan, director of the French Centre for Research on Iraq, said Iran needed to "find an enemy" to blame for the protests.

"The weakest link that could be targeted without provoking consequences was the Iranian Kurds," he said.

On September 28, Iran launched attacks on positions held by Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, killing at least 13 and wounding 58, including civilians.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said the groups were a threat to national security.

But experts say the groups have practically ceased all military activity, focusing instead on political action.

Protected presence

Any fighters among the groups could be viewed as reservists, experts say.

Iranian Kurdish journalist Raza Manochari said the groups agreed to end military activities in a deal with the authorities in Iraq's Kurdistan region.

The agreement, which has been in place since the 1990s, protects their deployment in exchange for ceasing activities that could cause problems for relations with Iran, he said.

Manochari, who has lived in Iraq for eight years, emphasised the ties between Kurds in the two countries — they speak the same Sorani dialect and many have relatives on both sides of the border.

Masoud Barzani, leader of Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party and former president of the Kurdistan region, was born in Iran in 1946.

He is the son of Kurdish nationalist leader Mustafa Barzani, who led the only breakaway state in Kurdish history. It was founded in 1945 in the north-western Iranian town of Mahabad and was crushed by Iranian troops after a year.

Today, Iran's Kurdish minority — about 10 million out of a population of 83 million — complain of marginalisation.

"In Iran, the Kurds don't have many basic cultural and political rights," said Shivan Fazil, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

"The right of education in their mother tongue continues to be outlawed."

'Never use Iraqi soil'

Kurds face a bleaker situation in Iran than elsewhere in the region, Mr Fazil said, referring to Kurds serving in Turkey's Parliament since 2015 and the regional government in Iraq's Kurdistan region.

The Iranian Kurdish party KDPI was a target of Tehran's strikes last month but Aso Saleh, an executive committee member of the party, said it had "never used the soil or the territory of Iraq to launch any attack on Iranian forces".

Mr Saleh, who lives in Sweden, said the movement was "predominantly located inside Iranian Kurdistan".

He said "the leadership and bureaucratic apparatus" were in Iraq.

"This movement is trying to bring democracy and federalism to Iran," he said.

Edris Abdi of the Komala Iranian Kurdish nationalist group in Iraq said it did not engage in military activity.

Hardi Mahdi Mika, a political scientist at the University of Sulaimani in northern Iraq, said the Iranian government neglected the country's Kurdish regions.

"In terms of economic growth and unemployment, the Kurdish regions are the poorest," he said.

Kurdish workers in Iran cross the border into Iraq every day in search of temporary jobs that offer better pay.

Even in Iranian provinces where they are in the majority, "the Kurds have no say in local governance", Mr Mika said.

Updated: October 06, 2022, 7:48 AM