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No More Safe Zones:
Iran Sending Assassins To Iraq, Say Iranian Kurdish Groups

Honar Hama Rasheed
After several murders of members of Iranian Kurdish groups in northern Iraq, accusations are flying. The groups say Iranian influence is increasing and that killers are coming over the border.
19.04.2018  |  Sulaymaniyah
Fighters from the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, or PDKI. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Fighters from the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, or PDKI. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

One week ago, the head of one of the groups that fights for Kurdish rights inside neighbouring Iran was shot at by armed assailants. As Hussein Yazdan Banna, the head of the Kurdistan Freedom Party, or PAK, was heading for his parents’ home in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, two men on a motorcycle shot at him, wounding him slightly in one shoulder. He was otherwise unharmed. Now his group are saying it was an assassination attempt.

Iraqi Kurdistan has long hosted the headquarters of several groups who fight for the rights of Iran’s Kurdish minority, including PAK, as well as the likes of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, or PDKI, the Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan, more commonly known as the Komala party, and the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK. The groups who fight for Kurdish rights in Iran have been allowed to stay in Iraq since 1991, on the condition that they don’t carry out any military activities against Iran from there.

The freedom of movement that the Iranians are enjoying here has now reached the point where they get to assassinate leaders and members of Iranian Kurdish parties.

“The two men who carried out the attack have not yet been arrested but we are certain that it was an assassination attempt and that the Iranians are responsible for it,” PAK spokesperson Khalil Naderi told NIQASH. “They are also responsible for other assassination attempts carried out in the last period.”

Naderi is referring to a number of other, similar recent incidents. Senior members of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, or PDKI, in the northern region have also been attacked in the past two months. The PDKI is one of the best known of the Kurdish rights groups from Iran and has been targeted before.

In March a bomb exploded in front of a house in the neighbourhood of Bnaslawa, in Erbil province, killing two members of the PDKI. A few days after that, on the night of March 6, another senior member of the DPIK was shot while visiting an area east of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. His body was found in a village near the area, shot at least 20 times.  

Earlier in the year, another member of the DPIK was killed in the city of Soran in Erbil province. The local police say it was a family fight and the man was shot by his 22-year-old son.

However the DPIK, whose main headquarters are located in Koy Sanjaq, a town near the Iraq-Iran border, issued a statement accusing Iran of being behind the murders. Members of the group in Iraqi Kurdistan now fear that none of them are safe in Iraqi Kurdistan any longer.

“Based on our own investigations, we believe all the incidents are assassination attempts and that Iran is behind them,” says Mohammed Sali Qadiri, the DPIK spokesperson in Erbil. “Iran sees the activities of the parties here and how they have a big impact and wants to undermine them.”

According to a human rights group in Iraqi Kurdistan, Hengaw, there have been ten deaths from within Iranian Kurdish rights groups since the beginning of the year.

“And all of these assassinations were organized by the Iranian regime,” says Arsalan Yar Ahmadi, the head of Hengaw in Iraqi Kurdistan. “It has organized the attack using members of the Quds forces [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and mercenaries. Some of these were arrested and confessed that they were assigned to carry out the murders,” says Ahmad; it is also worth noting that Hengaw is also opposed to the Iranian regime.

The DPIK says that five suspects were arrested over the murder east of Sulaymaniyah and that four of the individuals are from Iraq, but that the fifth was from Iran. The one who planned the operation says he did so at the request of Iranian forces, they said.  

For a long time areas in Iraqi Kurdistan have been safe for the DPIK and its supporters, says Ibrahim Zewayi, a representative of the DPIK in Erbil. But recent events show that this has changed, he notes.

“The Iranian influence in the Kurdish region has grown significantly since the events of October 16,” he told NIQASH, referring to the ill-fated referendum on Kurdish independence that saw Kurdish military pushed back behind their regional lines and political infighting break out.

Many locals believe that the Iranians were backing the Iraqi military and the Shiite Muslim militias who advanced toward Iraqi Kurdistan and forced the Kurdish troops to give way. This is why Iranian influence in the region is now increasing, they suspect.

“Iran has an agenda and a strategy in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Zewayi continues. “One of these involves open hostility towards the parties that oppose it, especially Iranian Kurdish parties. And the latest events indicate that there is more focus on this now.”

“The freedom of movement that the Iranians are enjoying here has now reached the point where they get to assassinate leaders and members of Iranian Kurdish parties,” says Reza Kaabi, a senior member of the Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan, who has survived an assassination attempt in the past. “It’s become a trend. And if it continues it will start to impact on the security of the Iraqi Kurdish region, as Iran continues to push its influence.”

Kaabi doesn’t think Iraqi Kurdistan should block Iran. That’s an impossibility, he argues. “But they should maintain their semi-independent status. They should maintain contact but should prevent interference, especially of the military kind,” he suggests.  

Nazim Dabbagh, Iraqi Kurdistan's representative in Tehran, told NIQASH that the Iraqi side “was doing its best to ease tensions between Tehran and those parties”.

“The Iranian side is not responsible for those operations,” Dabbagh insisted. “We are in constant contact to ensure that both sides are committed to the integrity of the Iraqi Kurdish region,” he concluded.