ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on Saturday denied recent claims by an Iran-backed militia leader that there is an Israeli military base located in the Kurdistan Region.
“Some Iraqi media outlets circulated an untrue statement that claimed there is an Israeli military camp in Erbil, supposedly run a female with the rank of a general,” a KRG statement read, characterizing the statements as an effort to “distort the truth for personal gain.”
The comments were made during an interview on an Iraqi television station by Akram al-Kaabi, leader of the Harakat Hizbollah al-Nujaba militia. The group, designated by the US as a terrorist organization in March 2019, is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), incorporated into Iraq’s security apparatus to help in the fight against the Islamic State.
The interview aired on al-Dijla, a news organization close to the Fatah Coalition, the political bloc in Iraq’s parliament that represents the PMF.
The statements come as recent tensions between the US and Iran continue to build amid recent attacks allegedly carried out by Israel against PMF militias in Iraq that receive direct support from Tehran.
Read More: Iran-Israel conflict spreads in Middle East
Following an “emergency meeting” on Friday evening, Iraqi Minister of Defense Najah al-Shimari announced in an official statement that “an attack on any official entity of Iraq is an attack on Iraq itself.”
Though he didn’t name attacking forces by name, Shimari said that “the ministry would take security and military measures to protect the country against an assault.”
Regarding the PMF leader’s claims of the existence of an Israeli base in the Kurdistan Region, Kirk H. Sowell, principal of the Middle East-focused political risk firm Utica Risk Services, told Kurdistan 24 that he “would not give much weight at all to anything Akram al-Kaabi says on this topic.”
Former coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center, Ceng Sagnic, noted to Kurdistan 24 that this is the first time the KRG has issued a statement responding to allegations that it has secret relations with Israel.
“Certain politicians and leaders including Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani did, indeed, comment on these allegations, but an official statement on this matter is new.”
He said the statement therefore should be analyzed in connection to what might have changed recently to force the KRG to take such an action, adding that Israeli airstrikes on PMF positions in the past two months, which are “nearly confirmed,” might have substantially degraded the military capabilities of the militias.
However, he said, it “also strengthened them in their pressure on the Iraqi government and KRG alike.”
According to a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), leaders in Baghdad would be particularly vulnerable to Iranian influence in the case of future conflict between the US and Iran, in large part due to their lack of control over the PMF.
“The airstrikes have been a validation of the anti-Western rhetoric of the Iran-axis,” said Sagnic, and stated that that the Iran-backed militias, if targeted by external actors, would be given an excuse to increase pressure on Baghdad to side “with them in condemning Israel and the US.”
The KRG, he added, “can be said to be under a similar pressure by various sides in the rest of Iraq to denounce these attacks.”
If such airstrikes continue, and if those leading Iraqi investigations into them claim to have confirmed that Israel was the perpetrator, the KRG is likely to be subjected to further pressure to publicly denounce these attacks or face similar speculations of collaboration, the analyst concluded.
“One can therefore assume that KRG’s possible reluctance to denounce and condemn these airstrikes may even result in tensions with Iraq or at least with certain Shiite factions,” he said.
He went on to warn that, although the KRG strives to be perceived as impartial in regards to issues between the US and Iran, its neutrality is “at stake as it will at least come with a risk of a dispute with the strong pro-Iran factions in Baghdad that KRG has been striving to have stable relations with since 2017.”
Editing by John J. Catherine