High Stakes Game in Northern Iraq
By Kenneth R. Timmerman
Over the past week, with Iranian shells raining down on Iraqi villages
in Kurdish areas along the border zone in the north, Iran’s leaders
have engaged the United States in a high stakes game that has gone
virtually unreported in the elite media.
Iran has massed thousands of troops along its northwestern border in
preparation for a ground assault against Iranian Kurdish fighters who
have sought refuge in the rugged Qanbil mountains in northwestern Iraq.
On Tuesday, villagers found leaflets bearing the official Islamic
Republic of Iran logo, ordering them to leave the area or face the
“Our enemies, mainly the Americans, are trying to plant security
hurdles in our country (Iran),” the leaflets said. “They achieve this
through using agents in the areas of Qandil and Khanira inside the
Kurdish region. 'The authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran will
work on cleansing this area.”
Hundreds of Iraqis from the villages of Qandoul and Qal’at Diza, close
to the Iranian border in the province of Sulaymanyah, fled as a result
of the Iranian shelling, according to wire service accounts.
Should Iran be allowed to carry out its planned attack, it would amount
to an overt aggression against its neighbor. But the potential damage
is far worse, because of the deep U.S. engagement in Iraq.
A successful Iranian attack against opposition Kurds from the Party of
Free Life of Kurdistan (known as PJAK) based in Iraq, will strike a
triple blow against America.
Not only will the Iranians have violated Iraq’s sovereignty, guaranteed
until now by the United States; they will have shown that despite the
presence of 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, the United States “can do
nothing” against Iran, as the founder of the Islamic Republic,
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, liked to say.
Even worse: if the United States sits this one out, we will send a
terrible message to Iranian opponents of the regime in Tehran that
despite all our calls for “freedom” and “democracy” in Iran, we will
not intervene to prevent them from being massacred, even when we have
the opportunity and the forces in place to save them from certain death.
And yet, unless Congress and the White House react immediately, that is
precisely what is going to happen.
An Iranian victory in northern Iraq will have far-reaching
consequences, and will further embolden president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,
who is engaged in political, military, and intelligence hardball with
the United States on multiple fronts, including inside Iraq.
Just last week, U.S. forces arrested another “high-priority” Iranian
Revolutionary Guards officer in Baghdad, and accused him of funneling
aid to Iraqi insurgents.
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver announced the
arrest on August 15, and said that coalition forces “will continue
their focused operations against unhelpful Iranian influence
interfering in Iraq.”
An unnamed U.S. official said that the Iranian Guardsman was
responsible for smuggling explosively-formed penetrators, Katyusha
rockets and other weapons into Iraq, and “had direct ties to senior
militant leaders and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds
Another U.S. military spokesman. Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, told
reporters in Iraq on Aug. 14 that Iran had recently provided 240 mm
long-range rockets to insurgents in Iraq for attacks on U.S. forces.
"The 240 mm rocket is a large-caliber projectile that has been provided
to militia extremists groups in the past along with a range of other
weapons from Iranian sources," Bergner said.
Similar Iranian-made rockets I
examined last summer in Haifa and in other northern Israel towns
and cities had been fired against Israeli civilian targets by Hezbollah
with warheads containing thousands of miniature ball-bearings, designed
to kill and maim.
On May 25, PKK guerillas in Turkey derailed a train bound for Syria for
Iran, ostensibly carrying construction materials. When prosecutors went
through the wreckage they found an Iranian-made rocket launcher and 300
rockets bound for Hezbollah in Syria, according to Turkish press
There is no way those weapons could have transited Turkey on the
Turkish national railroad without someone in the Turkish government
knowing what was going on.
Iran is banking on its secret “entente” with Turkey – to supply
Hezbollah through Syria, and to smash the bases of each other’s
opposition Kurds in Iraq - to deter the United States from any military
intervention in northern Iraq.
The Turks have been threatening for months to go after the PKK, who
have tens of thousands of fighters training in camps inside Iraq, along
the Turkish border.
And so the Iranians have spread the rumor, which until now has been
accepted at face value, that its own Kurdish dissidents (PJAK) are
actually the Iranian branch of the PKK, which the U.S. has designated
as an international terrorist organization.
The State Department took Turkey’s insistence that PJAK was allied with
the PKK seriously enough that it refused to meet earlier this month
with visiting PJAK leader, Rahman Haj Ahmadi, despite his open support
for the U.S. military presence in Iraq and his identification with U.S.
goals in the region.
Both the PKK and PJAK have training camps in the Qanbil mountain range
in northern Iraq. But because of the difficult geography, and their
different needs, they inhabit “different sides of the mountains,”
Rahman Ahmadi told me in Washington.
“The PKK doesn’t need us,” he said. “They have tens of thousands of
fighters, and hundreds of thousands of sympathizers.”
But Ahmadi acknowledges that PJAK and the PKK cooperate to a certain
degree, if only to prevent clashes between their own fighters.
“The president of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional government, Massoud
Barzani, also has an agreement with the PKK,” he told me. “Does that
make Barzani a supporter of the PKK?”
This is not the first time the Turks have played us in Iraq. In 2003,
on a flimsy pretext of domestic opposition, they successfully prevented
the 4th Infantry Division from crossing Turkey to join coalition forces
that liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein.
We can sit by and allow Iran to violate Iraq’s sovereignty, defy the
U.S. military, and smash a significant Iranian opposition group on the
slim pretext that Iran is “merely” seeking to punish its own rebels,
just as Turkey.
Or we can extend protection to the Iranian Kurds who have established
training camps in the rugged mountains of northeastern Iraq, and
inflict a double blow on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Clearly, the Iranians believe they can thumb their noses at the U.S.
military. For more than a week, they have conducted intermittent
shelling of Iraqi Kurdish villages in the general vicinity of suspected
My Iranian sources tell me that the Iranians are hoping to expel PJAK
from the area and replace them with Ansar al-Islam, the precursor group
to al Qaeda in Iraq,
“They want to send Saad Bin Laden, who is currently in Iran under
Iranian government protection, into a new base inside Iraq,” one source
Saad Bin Laden is Osama Bin Laden’s eldest son, who is widely viewed as
the heir to his terrorist empire, should his father die. He was given
refuge in Iran shortly after al Qaeda evacuated its bases in
Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks.
PJAK is a natural ally of the United States. They seek to unite
Iranians to overthrow the dictatorship of the clergy in Iran, and to
work together to build a future secular democracy.
We don’t have to provide them weapons, or money, or training. But if we
allow Iranian Revolutionary Guards troops to attack PJAK inside Iraq
with impunity, we may as well pack up and leave – not just Iraq, but
the entire region. Because we will have no credibility left.
If instead, if we seize this opportunity to smash an Iranian
Revolutionary Guards offensive with massive force, we could send a
message that will make Iran’s leaders think twice before messing with
It’s about time we made Iran’s leaders pay a price for killing
Americans and undermining America’s allies. Here is a terrific
opportunity to get that job done.
Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along
with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the
Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis:
the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).