Assassinations spark fears for Iraqi Kurdistan's stability before elections

The nature of these killings indicate that they are politically motivated, says analyst

Iraqi Kurdish people carry fire torches, as they celebrate Nowruz Day, a festival marking the first day of spring and Persian New Year, in the town of Akra near Duhok, in Kurdistan. Reuters
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The Iraqi Kurdistan Region, known for its relative stability amid the turmoil in Iraq, is facing a worrying surge in assassinations of senior officials. 

The alarming trend has raised questions regarding the region’s security, its political landscape, as well as potential involvement of regional players ahead of the long-awaited parliamentary elections scheduled in November.

The latest victim of these attacks is Mohammed Mirza Sindi, a former senior official of a powerful intelligence agency linked to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of two main political parties that share power in the region. He was a senior officer in the Parastin intelligence agency.

Mr Sindi died after his car exploded in the city of Zacho in Duhok province, according to police. The region’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani ordered an investigation into his killing.

It is the third assassination in the region this month.

On July 7, two members of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, which is based in northern Iraq, were shot dead by a militant, according to Kurdish human right watchdog the Hengaw Organisation.

Another was wounded in the same attack, which took place in a village in Sulaymaniyah province, it said.

A few days later, the dead body of another Iranian dissident was found in an abandoned building in a village in Erbil, the capital of the three-province region, it said.

The Hengaw Organisation accused Iran of being behind these attacks.

In May, Karwan Gaznay, a lawmaker at the regional parliament linked to KDP rival, the Patriotic Union Of Kurdistan, said he survived an assassination attempt. His driver was injured.

In April, a Turkish drone carried out a strike on the commander of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazloum Abdi, in the vicinity of Sulaymaniyah airport. Mr Abdi escaped unharmed.

Ankara, which has a military presence in Kurdistan, also hunts down militants of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

The PKK has enjoyed good relations with the PUK, but its relationship is thorny with the KDP, which has strong economic ties with Turkey. The KDP accuses the PUK of harbouring militants, and bringing conflict to the region.

"Overall, the assassinations are overlapped with Turkish and Iranian efforts to target Kurdish dissidents in the Kurdistan Region,"
Mike Fleet, Iraq analyst

"Overall, the assassinations are overlapped with Turkish and Iranian efforts to target Kurdish dissidents in the Kurdistan Region," Mike Fleet, an Iraq analyst told The National.

As both countries are demanding that the Federal Iraqi Government and KRG take on more actions against these groups "this pressure trickles down into the already strained KDP-PUK relationship, complicating it even further", Mr Fleet added.

"This comes at a time where the KDP-PUK relationship continues to be strained, especially if this was PKK", he said.

The Kurdish region won self-rule in 1991, when the US imposed a no-fly zone over it in response to Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression of Kurdish uprisings.

The KDP, the largest party in the Kurdistan, controls Erbil and Duhok province, while Sulaimaniyah province is controlled by its rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan PUK.

There is deep mistrust between the two parties as they fought a civil war in the mid-1990s during which thousands were killed, and many more Kurds sought refuge abroad.

In 1998, the two sides ceased hostilities after signing a US-brokered deal.

The two parties entered a power-sharing deal following the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime and paved the way for the recognition of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in the 2005 constitution.

But the deal remains fragile due to deep disagreements over issues including resources in the oil and gas-rich region.

Their relationship was further tested after the assassination of an intelligence officer and a PUK defector when a bomb exploded in his car in Erbil in October last year.

The KDP accused the PUK of carrying out the attack and sentenced some of its affiliates in their absence in Erbil. The PUK strongly denied the accusations.

The incident further strained the power-sharing agreement, prompting the PUK to boycott the Kurdistan Regional Government.

But in a sign of reconciliation before elections, the PUK ended its boycott in May.

“The nature of these assassinations indicates that they are politically motivated”
Kadhim Yawar, independent political analyst

“The nature of these assassinations indicates that they are politically motivated,” independent political analyst Kadhim Yawar told The National.

“They are being carried out by either local players due to the internal political infighting or external ones especially with regards to Iranian opposition groups residing in the region,” Mr Yawar added.

“The latest incidents are dangerous as they suggest that the atmosphere will be unsafe ahead of the elections,” Mr Yawar said.

“They may force individual candidates who are against the policies of the two ruling parties to reconsider their nomination,” he added.

As Iraq plunged into chaos after 2003, the Kurdistan region was largely spared the violence that rocked other parts of the country.

But in recent years, Turkey and Iran have increased their military operations against Turkish and Iranian dissident groups based in Kurdistan.

Operations against Turkey’s number one nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party as well as the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan were confined to rural areas, but recently they have spanned across major cities.

Updated: July 25, 2023, 5:53 AM