After hours of traveling around the Iraqi border between the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and Iran, you will come to a single conclusion: “This is a one-sided border.”
Since April 2003, after the illegal US invasion of Iraq, West Asia transformed into a vast playground for an array of foreign states and entities. Among them are Iranian Kurdish separatist parties and organizations stationed in northern Iraq.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) often targets the sites of these armed militias with airstrikes because of the separatist threat they pose. But why are these groups even based in Iraq, and do Baghdad and Erbil play any direct role in hosting militias that target Iranian territory?
These questions persist – unanswered – bar the ever-present Iranian military responses, as in September when the IRGC carried out targeted drone and missile strikes against separatist Kurdish militias for 13 consecutive days.
When the operation concluded on 7 October, the IRGC announced it had achieved its goals,” but warned that it “will resume its operations, if the threat to Iran’s national security returns again.”
Iranian Kurdish separatists
The most prominent of these Kurdish militias is the Kurdistan Free Life Party (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê – PJAK), whose activities against Iranian interests suddenly escalated after the US occupation of Iraq.
After 2004, PJAK appeared for the first time as an armed force, in the same areas controlled by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) led by Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK are primarily based in the Qandil Heights in the far north-east of Iraq, which lies within the Zagros Mountain range that extends deep into Iranian territory.
The “East Kurdistan Forces” are the military arm of the anti-Iran Kurdish militia, and its fighters are estimated to be between 800 and 1,200, most of them from Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Iran and various Kurdish regions.
In a series of articles published in The New Yorker in 2006, journalist Seymour Hersh revealed that the US and Israel were training this party and supporting it financially and with intelligence in order to undermine Tehran.
Shortly after its invasion of Iraq, the administration of US President George W. Bush began a covert program to train and equip PJAK, with Israeli assistance. “The group has been conducting clandestine cross-border forays into Iran,” Hersh reported, as “part of an effort to explore alternative means of applying pressure on Iran.”
Taking advantage of social unrest
The recent and on-going unrest witnessed in a number of Iranian cities following the death of the young Iranian-Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, while in police custody on 16 September, provided an opportunity for PJAK and other Kurdish separatist parties to step up their subversive activities.
The Cradle’s Iraq correspondent was able to reach sites targeted by IRGC in the town of Koysanjak (60 km east of Erbil, the capital of the KRI) near the Iranian border, and to approach one of the largest camps of PJAK in one of the town’s valleys, surrounded by a mountain range.
It is almost impossible for journalists to reach these sites. We had to travel disguised – without our cell phones or cameras – alongside local villagers and with a Kurdish coordinator who arranged our visit. The militia fighters often shop in villages surrounding the camp.
However, “their goal is not to shop, but to carry out security and intelligence operations that the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party in Erbil turns a blind eye to,” confirms a shepherd who moonlights as a tobacco and fuel smuggler on both sides of the border.
He estimates the number of fighters here to be just over 1,000, The mountains provide a comfortable and secure space to carry out their military activities, which include daily exercises and a live-fire military drill in the Autumn.
Our source calls the PJAK fighters “dreamers” because their military arsenal dates back to the 1950s, and includes light weapons, explosive devices, mortars, and anti-vehicle mines. “The Americans will not give these people modern weapons,” adds the smuggler, who fought in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and has experience in traversing the rugged border terrain.
Nevertheless, he warns that these people are “dangerous,” with “Eastern Kurdistan Forces” now transitioning to security work and “management of operations” inside Iran. Their work is conducted in cooperation with special forces from the Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the “coalition” forces (which are mainly US troops).
This cooperation is not new, and has accompanied every major incident of internal civil strife witnessed by Iran since at least 2009, including turmoil in 2016, 2017, 2019, 2020, and most recently, 2022.
In the past two years, PJAK’s activity has ceased to be purely military, and “we see its fighters accompanying guests. It is true that they disguise themselves, but we are not naive,” the Iraqi source says, adding, however, that the Kurdistan region “will not reap a profit from this game as usual.”
Iraqi Kurdish links to PJAK
Officially, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which are the two main political parties in the Kurdistan region, deny any connection with PJAK. However, Kurdish leaders acknowledge the existence of “coordination,” “transmission of messages,” and “exchange of information” with the militia group. The KDP has previously called on PJAK and PKK to lay down their arms.
Certainly, it would be difficult – if not impossible – for PJAK to manage activities of this magnitude on Iraqi territory, and to globally market themselves as “freedom fighters,” without the collusion and support of both Kurdish and Iraqi authorities.
A high-ranking Iranian diplomatic source with experience in Baghdad for more than ten years, confirms the existence of a tripartite committee that includes representatives from Tehran, Baghdad, and Erbil to exchange information about the “subversive activities” carried out by PJAK against Iran.
The committee does not, however, hold regular meetings, and the Iranians have become convinced that its trouble-shooting initiatives are not serious because of Baghdad’s ineptitude, and because of the involvement of foreign states in supporting the separatists.
This has prompted Tehran to adopt a policy of “force to deter what threatens its national security,” with one or two officials in the Iraqi state being informed half an hour before any Iranian military strike operations commence.
The diplomatic source, who has military experience, adds: “We constantly monitor everyone who visits PJAK sites, the movements of its fighters, all their steps, and the support they receive. We broadcast recordings of the moment of the bombing to assure the separatists and the intelligence services that support them that we know their locations very well.”
Baghdad turns a blind eye
Yet in Baghdad, official sources deny the existence of a tripartite committee, as well as any prior warning of Iranian airstrikes. In fact, a high-ranking Iraqi officer even informed The Cradle that there are headquarters and safe houses for Kurdish separatists and their leaders in both Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, with coordination between PJAK and the PKK.
There is also evidence that the separatist militias are active in illegal, cross-border activities that generate revenues for PJAK which, in turn, enable it to pay its fighters’ salaries. Baghdad is aware of all this, sources say, but turns a blind eye.
Safe-guarding Iran’s territorial integrity
The high-ranking officer claims, nevertheless, that Iraq’s new Prime Minister Muhammad Shia’ al-Sudani is serious about his initiative to establish a new Border Guards Force stationed between the region of Turkiye and Iran, and to prioritize supporting these forces with human resources, weapons, and modern equipment.
But the source has also expressed pessimism over this border venture, and expects the continuation of PJAK’s activities in the mountainous area they know so well.
He points out that Tehran “will not be convinced of the Iraqi field and military measures. The Iranians know our capabilities. The presence of the separatists at their borders will remain a source of security concern. And they told us that they will not stand hands folded in the face of this threat.”
“Practically,” he concludes, “Tehran is the one that controls the borders in the area of the Jasusan mountain range.”
Needless to say, as a sovereign state Iran will adopt a proactive stance in confronting threats to its national security posed by foreign-backed, separatist groups – even though this may undermine the sovereignty of its weaker Iraqi neighbor.
While it is collectively in the interests of Iran, Iraq and indeed Turkiye and Syria to co-ordinate over this mutual ethno-nationalist, separatist, security threat, Baghdad has been too slow to rise to the challenge.
Instead, we may see this process begin first in the Northeast of Syria, where all four states are currently gathered in heightened concern over militarized Kurdish separatism, its foreign sponsors, and the imminent threat of a military confrontation.