WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on Friday explained that the US was working to avoid any escalation in the confrontation between Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga around Kirkuk.
Returning to Washington from Florida, where he had visited several US commands, Mattis told reporters, “We have to work on this. The Secretary of State has the lead, but my forces are integrated among these forces, and they are working, too, to make certain we keep any potential for conflict off the table.”
The build-up of forces around Kirkuk, by both the Iraqi army and the Shia militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), has alarmed the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Earlier on Friday, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani issued a statement noting that on Oct. 10, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had publicly threatened an attack against Kurdistan and the Peshmerga.
“Over the past few days, PMF and Iraqi forces have been amassing their forces along Peshmerga defense lines,” his statement read, “with the intention of attacking the Peshmerga.”
The Kurdish alarm—and Mattis’ warning—came on the same day President Donald Trump announced a tough, new policy against Iran that includes designating its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization.
“I am authorizing the Treasury Department to further sanction the entire [IRGC] for its support for terrorism and to apply sanctions to its officials, agents, and affiliates,” Trump affirmed, as he laid out his tough new policy.
Iran supports key figures and organizations in the PMF, including the Kata’ib Hezbollah, in which Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was involved in the 1983 bombings of the US and French embassies in Kuwait, is a senior figure.
Twenty years later, Kata’ib Hezbollah was prominently involved in attacking Americans during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is a similar, Iranian-backed organization that targeted US troops during OIF. Its head, Qais al-Khazali, spent several years in US detention.
Both organizations are, properly, included within the scope of the new sanctions on the IRGC and its affiliates.
Responding to a question from Kurdistan 24 at a Hudson seminar, Michael Pregent, an Iraq expert at the Hudson Institute with close ties to the White House, explained the new policy could well have implications for the current confrontation.
“If I [were] a Peshmerga fighter in Kirkuk, looking at Kata’ib Hezbollah flying their flags from M-1 Abrams tanks, I would feel comforted by this message today,” Pregent said. “If they move, after this speech,” and start attacking a US ally, “the question is going to be asked, ‘Do we target a designated terrorist group?’”
Also on Friday, Bayan Abdul Rahman, the KRG representative in Washington, met with the Washington press to underscore the dangers in the confrontation around Kirkuk.
The Iraqi Prime Minister, along with the PMF, have made a series of demands on the KRG, including asking the Peshmerga to abandon Kirkuk and retreat to the line they held before the Islamic State (IS) attacked in 2014.
Baghdad invited the Peshmerga into the city to keep it from falling into IS’ hands after the Iraqi army fled.
As Abdul Rahman explained, “We believe it is the Iranians who are coordinating” the Iraqis’ threats and military movements.
Speaking before Mattis’ remarks were published, she suggested the US did not seem to recognize the gravity of the situation and the potential for conflict.
US officials assured her privately they did take the matter seriously and urged restraint, but “we need more public statements from the US to say that they are taking this seriously,” she suggested.
As she explained, the KRG wants to avoid violence, de-escalate, and talk. However, if Baghdad attacks, the Peshmerga are “absolutely” ready to defend themselves and their people.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany