Iran’s regime has expanded its campaign against Kurds, using the protests as cover, it has launched numerous attacks over the border in Iraq, targeting the Kurdistan region. Iran’s regime said on Wednesday that it launched 73 ballistic missiles and “dozens” of drones at targets “deep” inside Iraq. This began with artillery bombardment several days ago along the border striking Sidakan and Galala near Choman. Iran then expanded its attacks to include missile and drone strikes on September 28. Iran has increasingly used drones in the region to attack countries; and also trafficked drones to proxy and allied groups and even shipped them to Russia, Venezuela, Ethiopia and other places; including arming Hamas, the Houthis, Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq and groups in Syria, and Hezbollah.
Why the attacks matter
Iran has used drones and rockets to attack Kurdish opposition groups in the past, particularly in 2018 near Koya when it used the Fateh 110 missiles; it has used drones also to attack US facilities at Erbil airport; and also to target Israel in 2018 from Syria; in 2021 from Iraq and this year from Iran directly; the US Coalition shot down the drones earlier this year; but in August Iranian-backed groups in Iraq targeted US forces in Syria; the US then responded. Iran has also attack Erbil with missiles and drones this year; and attacked shipping in the Gulf of Oman last year and attacked Saudi Arabia in 2019. It also attacked the UAE, apparently from Yemen using the Houthis.
The attacks today targeted PDKI and PAK; and Iran has also targeted Komala, Kurdish opposition groups. PDKI recently reunited with KDP-I, groups with roots in the same party; and Iran has wanted to neutralize these groups for years; expanding the attacks to target PAK and Komala illustrates Iran wants to use the protests as cover for wide-ranging attacks on Kurds; the protests began in the Kurdistan region of Iran and the woman whose death led to the protests is Kurdish. That is all part of Iran’s plan, using the IRGC to target opposition groups because Iran is fearful of these groups and knows it has provoked an uprising in Iran and that the Kurdish groups are organized and will aid their friends in opposing the regime. Iran’s attacks have been condemned by the US, Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
My map illustrates the extent of the attacks. The area around Koya has been struck and civilians fear; those attacks apparently targeted PDKI; and the attacks in Prde south of Erbil targeted PAK; while those near Suli struck at Komala and those near Sidikan and Choman it is not clear which groups were targeted. The targeting of PAK is an escalation; PAK played a key role in the war on ISIS and its well known leader Hussein Yazdanpanah always warned for years that when the war on ISIS was over that the Iranian-backed groups in Iraq would turn their guns on Kurds; he was right and his group at Prde helped protect the road to Erbil from Kirkuk during the clashes in 2017 when Kurdish forces were driven from Kirkuk by the Iraqi government in a deal brokered by Qasem Soleimani. PAK forces had been based on the frontline west of Kirkuk overlooking Hawija; they were pulled back to Prde; and Iran has evidently followed this development keenly. Iran has targeted Koya in the past, seeking to destroy KDP-I in 2018; and now hopes to eliminate or send a message to PDKI; Iran has previously warned it could launch a ground incursion into Iraq to target these groups.
It’s worth noting that Iran’s impunity to attack Kurdish groups dovetails with the Hashd based in Nineveh where it uses areas of the Hashd al-Shebek 30 brigade to target Erbil using the 122mm rocket; it has been doing this for two years; and at the same time targeting the Turkish base at Bashiqa and the oil refinery KAR at Kalak; and also from the other side it has targeted the Dana gas plant Khor Mor gas field in the Sulaimaniya region…so this is a wide ranging series of operations. At the same time Turkey has bases in the Kurdistan region where it also carries out attacks often claiming to “fighting terrorism”; these include attacks on Makhmur, Sinjar and areas in the mountains. Turkish forces killed Iraqi tourists earlier this year near Dohuk.
Between the Iranian and Iranian-backed attacks and the Turkish operations there is a clear threat to the stability of the region and this area.
The context of the attacks
The attacks on Kurdish groups in Iraq are unprecedented in their size and also the weapons used. Iran is perfecting a new method of waging war using missiles and drones against targets. It has been conducting these kinds of operations for years. Consider the September 2019 Abqaiq attack where Iran used two dozen drones and cruise missiles. It showcased the precision abilities it had achieved in this attack. Like the attacks on Iraq, the attack on Saudi Arabia went unpunished.
In the 2018 attack Iran had also apparently used drones before or after the attack on Koya. But these drones were there for surveillance. This shows how far Iran has come since 2018 in terms of using kamikaze drones or what are called “loitering munitions.” The full story of Iran’s drone program can be found in my book Drone Wars and other articles on this subject. What matters is that Iran has perfected loitering munitions and is basing them in other countries. In January 2021 reports said that Iran had sent the Shahed-136 to Yemen. It turned out that this foreshadowed the growing use of this drone in attacks. The US warned earlier this year that Iran and Russia were discussing the possibility of Russia using Iran’s drones. Now it’s clear that the Shahed 136 is being widely used by Russia. Video on September 26 showed attacks on Odesa and it is being used in other operations.
Therefore, Iran’s attack on Kurdish groups in Iraq is partly about showing off its capabilities. Iran isn’t shy about bragging about this. The fact it is has described the number of rockets it used shows it doesn’t fear reprisal. Iran has done this before in Iraq; it fired ballistic missiles at US forces in January 2020, targeting the large Asad base. But this attack appears more complex and designed to either send a deadly message to the Kurdish groups, or neutralize them before they can increase operations in support of the protests in Iran.
Another aspect of this could be Iran’s desire to use its Fateh 360 missile, which some reports indicated was used in the recent attacks. So this attack on Kurds in Iraq could be a dry-run for larger attacks in the region. Iran prefers to strike at groups that can’t strike back. This is also an opportunity for Iran to test weapons, methods and tactics. As such both Iran and Turkey carry out attacks in Iraq and both claim to be targeting “terrorists.” Both countries can experiment with the use of drones and combined arms attacks.
Another aspect of the attack is that it comes amidst a background of numerous attacks on the Kurdistan region. This destabilizes the region and also sends a message to the leadership. The goal of Iran is to both blackmail the Kurdistan region, and strike at it because Iran sees the region hosting groups that it fears. For instance, Iran wants to drive the US out of Erbil; drive Turkey out of Bashiqa; and also get rid of Kurdish opposition groups.
Iran’s attack on the Kurdistan region in Iraq include numerous incidents over the last several years. Beginning in 2019 Iran began to strike at US forces in Iraq. This culminated in US retaliation and protests at the US embassy in Baghdad and the US killing IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020. Then, with the Covid outbreak taking place, the US withdrew from most facilities in Iraq; such as Qayarra’s Q-West; Balad; Taji, K-1 and others. The US consolidated at Union III in Baghdad, Asad and Erbil. The seeming relocation to Erbil, even though the US had operated there to aid in the fight against ISIS over the years, then led Iran to try to target the US there. Attacks began in September 2020. In April 2021 Iran had expanded to target a CIA hangar at Erbil’s airport, according to the Washington Post. But this was only the beginning, a larger attack occurred in March 2022 with differing interpretations. Some argued it related to a gas deal and Israel; others suggested it was in retaliation for Iranian losses in Syria; and others reported Iran’s claim it was targeting “Mossad” in northern Iraq. Another attack occurred in June 2022. Iran shifted from using pro-Iran proxies in Nineveh, to attacking directly from Iran. This showed its sense of impunity.
Then we have the other attacks in the Kurdistan region. There were numerous attacks on Dana Gas at the Khor Mor gas field. Rudaw noted “Operations at Sulaimani’s Khor Mor field operated by UAE-based Dana Gas “continue as normal,” the company said on Tuesday following a rocket attack. At least three rockets hit the vicinity of the key gas field in Chamchamal district on Monday, the latest in a series of rocket strikes that have targeted the field since last month…Three rockets targeted the Khor Mor gas field in a matter of four days in June, which led Dana Gas to temporarily halt the development of one of its expansion projects. At least two contractors were reportedly injured.”
There were attacks on the KAR oil facility near Kalak in April and May 2022 as well. The Kawergosk refinery was targeted by Katyusha rockets.
Iranian-backed groups also targeted the Kurdish base at Bashiqa. This base is sometimes called the Zilikan base. It was created to support people who had fled Mosul in 2014 and Turkey felt it could project influence through the base. Unlike the Kurdish bases in the mountains near Deraluk and other areas, this base is within range of rockets from Nineveh and Iran likely sees the base as focused more on Mosul; an area Turkey covets since the last century; and less on Turkey’s battles with the PKK. Thus the base became a target in April, May and August.
It’s worth noting that Iran also increased its attacks on US forces in Syria since October 2021. Iran began using groups based in Iraq, or moving weapons through Iraq to conduct these operations. Back in August 2018 Iran had moved ballistic missiles to Iraq to bases linked to the Hashd or PMU. But Iran expanded this use of these groups linked to the Hashd in 2019 and more reports said Iran was secretly moving missiles to Iraq. It mobilized Kataib Hezbollah to strike at Saudi Arabia, allegedly using drones. Then it began to use them not only to move weapons to the Imam Ali base near Albukamal on the border, but also to move weapons to groups along the MERV. This coincided with other trends, such as protests in Iraq against Iranian-backed groups that led to the fall of the Prime Minister and eventually elections. There were also airstrikes targeting Kataib Hezbollah in Albukamal. The June 2018 airstrike was the first major type of these, but more occurred after. Israel was waging what is called the campaign between the wars in Syria at this time and the US and Israel were coordinating more, reports said. Iranian-backed groups blamed Israel for attacks in 2019.
The tensions culminated in Iran using groups in Iraq to target US forces in Syria. In August drones were flown from Iraq and the US retaliated in Syria. NBC noted “there were seven attacks in May, as many attacks that month as February, March and April combined, and there have been a total of 29 since October without a kinetic U.S. response.”
Iran also expanded its drone war on Israel in this period. In February 2018 Iran used a drone from T-4 base to fly into Israel. Then in August 2019 it sent Hezbollah members to a safe house near the Golan to try to launch drones. In March 2021 Iran launched drones toward Israel and Israel used F-35s to shoot them down. In May Iran launched a drone from Iraq aimed at Israel. Like the 2018 incident, the drone flew into Israel’s airspace near Beit Shean and was shot down. In September and November 2021 Israel’s Defense Minister highlighted Iran’s growing drone threat and its training of operators. In February 2022 the US-led Coalition shot down Iranian Shahed-136 drones launched from Iran that were heading for Israel. There were also drone and missile attacks on the UAE in February 2022. There was a drone attack on a ship in the Gulf of Oman in July 2021, killing two members of the crew of the ship.
In the spring of 2022 the US revealed that Russia was looking into acquiring Iranian drones. By September the US had sanctioned the Iranian companies involved in manufacturing and shipping drones to Russia. Iran was also expanding its drone footprint with a factory in Tajikistan and also exporting them to Venezuela and Ethiopia. This illustrates that when Iran uses drones to carry out attacks in Iraq it is also showcasing their abilities to potential customers.
The groups under attack
Iran has targeted several Kurdish opposition groups. This includes targeting the PAK near Prde with drones and missiles. Casualties were reported. The PAK played a key role in the war on ISIS on frontlines west of Kirkuk near Hawija and in Bashiqa. The leader of the group, Hussein Yazdanpanah, became well known. Iran now appears to be expanding its areas of operations in Iraq to target the group. The PAK helped fight during the clashes over Kirkuk in October 2017 when Iraq pushed the Kurdish peshmerga out of Kirkuk. Prde became a key city of clashes as it lies on the road to Erbil.
PDKI also said two people had been killed in attacks on its houses near Koya. A portion of this attack was caught on video and journalists were reportedly wounded. The PDKI is led by Mustafa Hijri and it recently reunified with the KDP-I; the two groups had separated 16 years ago. In March 2018 Iran had struck at the KDP-I and PDKI, using assassinations. Back in 1989 Iran had also assassinated PDKI leader Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, and then killed Sadegh Sharafkandi several years later. Clearly Iran hopes that it can weaken the re-united PDKI (or KDPI depending on how you use the acronym).
Iran has also targeted Komala, another Kurdish group. It has been arresting its members over the years, but this appears to be the largest attack on the group so far. The only group apparently not targeted in the September 28 wave of attacks is PJAK.
The Kurdistan Regional Government’s health ministry said on September 28 “Today’s attacks by the Islamic Republic of Iran that targeted several areas in the Kurdistan Region has killed 9 people, including 1 civilian, and left more than 30 more wounded. Hospitals are currently providing treatment for the wounded.”
The US, Kurdistan Regional Government, Iraq and others have condemned the attacks.
The KRG wrote “The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) strongly condemn the repetitive violations of the sovereignty of the Kurdistan Region. Attacks on opposition groups through the Islamic Republic of Iran’s missiles, under any pretext, is an incorrect stance which promotes a misleading interpretation of the course of events. We strongly condemn these continuous attacks which result in the death of civilians and we call for an end to these violations.”
The US condemned the attacks. “The United States strongly condemns the drone and missile attack launched against Iraq’s Kurdistan region earlier today. We stand with Iraq’s leaders in the Kurdistan region and Baghdad in condemning these attacks as an assault on the sovereignty of Iraq and its people. Iranian leaders continue to demonstrate flagrant disregard not only for the lives of their own people, but also for their neighbors and the core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity enshrined in the UN Charter. Iran cannot deflect blame from its internal problems and the legitimate grievances of its population with attacks across its borders. Its flagrant use of missiles and drones against its neighbors, as well as its providing of drones to Russia for its war of aggression in Ukraine and to proxies throughout the Middle East region, should be universally condemned. The United States will continue to pursue sanctions and other means to disrupt Iran’s destabilizing activities across the Middle East region.”
The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) noted “Iraq, including the Kurdistan region, rejects the idea that it can be treated as the “backyard” of the region where its sovereignty routinely violates its neighborhood with impunity. Missile diplomacy is a reckless act with dire consequences. These attacks must stop immediately.”
Iraq summoned the Iranian ambassador and condemned the attacks, calling it a “dangerous development that threatens the security and sovereignty of Iraq.”
“We view Iran’s attacks on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq against the background of the domestic political protests in Iran with great concern,” Germany’s Foreign Ministry said in a new statement.
US Central Command downs an Iranian drone
“At approximately 2:10 PM local time, US forces brought down an Iranian Mojer-6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle headed in the direction of Erbil as it appeared as a threat to CENTCOM forces in the area,” US Central Command said in a statement. The statement was called “Statement regarding Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ unprovoked attack in Iraq’s Erbil Governorate.”