Deciphering the Rocket Attack on Erbil in Light of Tehran-Washington Rivalry

The assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, the external wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and his Iraqi comrade Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, in early January 2020 triggered the rise of new Shiite militia groups seeking revenge for the loss of their commanders. In just nine months following the assassination, over 10 such militia groups were formed in Iraq, including Usbat al-Thaireen, Ashab al-Kahf, Saraya Thawrat al-Ishreen al-Thaniya, Zulfiqar Brigade, Saraya al-Muntaqim, Thar al-Muhandis group, al-Ghashiyah, Rubu Allah, Abu Jadahah Front, Ould al-Shayib, al-Khal, Fariq Fatemiyoun al-Electroni and al-Majamih al-Khassa. However, Saraya Awliya al-Dam (Guardians of Blood Brigade) that claimed responsibility for Erbil’s attack was not among the mentioned groups, as based on Iraqi intelligence this group is relatively new as it is formed just few months ago. And identifies itself as anti-American forces in Iraq. Militia experts (such as, knights and Smyth)  consider the group as a faction that maybe linked to “Iran-backed Iraqi militias including Kataib Hizbullah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization”. It could be argued that the name of Saraya Awliya al-Dam is a delusive name to cover the reality of such terrorist events. Is it used as a facade by the Popular Mobilization Forces, in order not to be targeted by Washington given Iran’s expectations from the Biden administration

The style and rhetoric of this group is very similar to those Iraqi groups that are aligned with Iran. The Iraqi intelligence reports claim that the aim behind establishing this type of shadowed armed militia groups is mainly to attack American and international coalition forces in Iraq. This seems as a new method devised by the well-known militia groups to avoid being blamed and charged with terrorist attacks against both Iraqi government and U.S interests. What happened in Erbil could be understood in this context.  

Deciphering the hidden agenda behind the attack

Although Iran denied suggestions by some Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraqi officials that it has links with the little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya Al-Dam, nevertheless, it is indiscreet to assume such terrorist attacks could happen in Iraq without Iranian knowledge. The Erbil’s rocket attack on 15th February carried a number of messages to Iran’s competitors in Iraq. The messages were firstly directed to the U.S. then to the Kurdish leadership in Erbil given its good relationship with Washington. Iran showed rivals its capability to target any location in Iraq including the Kurdistan Region which is regarded to be the safest place in Iraq, especially for American and coalition forces. It is wise to view the timing of this attack in light of frequent suggestions for establishing permanent bases for U.S. troops in Kurdistan Region in case of American forces withdrawal from Iraq. The U.S. already has a number of military bases in Kurdistan region, especially in Erbil province. Meanwhile, the new U.S consulate building in Erbil which is under construction is a colossal project built on 200,000 square meters that costs $600 million, Iran views this as a threat and believes the main aim behind this project is to monitor Iran’s political activates in the region. Meanwhile, Kurdistan region is not only the safe haven for Americans but for Saudis and Emiratis economic activates. In 2014 the United Arab Emirates foreign direct investment in the Kurdistan Region stands at $5.5 billion, and the UAE is among the top investors, according to a senior Kurdish official. Certainly Iran is not happy with KRG’s cooperation with its rivals and hosting them on Kurdistan region’s territory that borders Iran. 

The second message is directed to KRG, warning the Kurdish leadership that they should think twice before deciding to ally with the U.S. and Iran’s rivals in Iraq. Also, as Turkey is urging the KRG for a military operation against the PKK in Sinjar, this attack could be seen as a message sent by Iran and its proxies, who are against this move, make new calculations.

However, KRG has usually considered Iran’s interests in Kurdistan region, especially through the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a major Kurdish political party with close political and economic ties with Iran. It could be argued that the Iranian rage towards KRG enhanced as Kurdish lawmakers in Iraqi Parliament rejected to vote in favor of expelling the U.S. forces from Iraq in March 2020. Less than a month before the Erbil rocket attack Iran’s official news agency, Fars News released a series of short propaganda films glorifying the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani as the savior of the Kurdistan region when the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) terrorists turned the direction of their attacks to Kurdish areas and got close to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region. This situation has angered the KRG that “sent an official complaint about the series to the Iranian government because the movie is allegedly funded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) rather than being a purely independent initiative”.  

On the other hand, Iran expected to see actions from the Biden’s administration to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, but this has not realized thus far. The most effective card of Iran against the Biden administration is Iraq. Iran is capable of creating hassle for the Biden administration in its Iraq policy in particular, and in Middle East policy in general.

The Erbil Attack reflects a new pattern of Shiite militia involvement in Erbil and the Kurdistan region at large. This time Iran has enlarged the battleground against the U.S. forces to include the Kurdish areas of Iraq as well.

The failure of the negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil on the budget issue could be another reason behind the February attack on Erbil. The failure of the negotiations is likely to hinder alliance plans between the Kurdish leadership and Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister, for Iraqi Parliament elections scheduled for October 2021.

The ramifications of the Erbil Attack    

In its regional policy the KRG has tried hard to balance its relations with Iran and Turkey on the one hand and U.S. on the other hand, but now Kurdistan region can turn into a battleground for the ongoing rivalry between Tehran and Washington. The rocket attack is a clear message directed to Iran’s competitors in the region warning them not to mess with Tehran, otherwise they will be targeted everywhere, as nowhere in Iraq is out of Iran’s reach.

Since the end of Trump’s administration the U.S has very limited interference in Iraq’s internal issues, especially the ongoing negotiation between Erbil and Baghdad. The Erbil attack is likely to push the Biden administration to play a more supportive role in Iraq’s affairs. This might give a chance to both KRG and Kadhimi’s government to reach an agreement regarding the 2021 Budget issue.

The Erbil rocket attack made clear that Iraq in its militia dominated form cannot be trusted to provide security to the KRG. Therefore, U.S. might think to install more anti-rocket defense systems in the Kurdistan Region.  Such growing militia attacks and the Iran-U.S standoff in Iraq could undermine the US-led international coalition’s efforts to secure the enduring defeat of the IS. In recent months, the IS has increased its attacks in different parts of Iraq. Thus, U.S. should pressure Baghdad to stop expanding the purse that allows militia groups to grow. Indeed the 2021’s budget proposal that asks for increasing the budget allocation for the Ministry of Defense by 9.9%, the Ministry of Interior by 9.7%, the Counter Terrorism Force by 10.1%, and the Popular Mobilization Forces by a staggering 45.7% from the previous budget is a warning sign for future of the country. Furthermore, Washington should put more efforts to facilitate KRG-Baghdad coordination, especially in the disputed areas, as this decreases the chance of exploitation of the KRG-Baghdad rifts by unwanted groups.