Fri, 04 Dec 2020

Arrests in Northern Iraq Trigger Tensions Between Kurdish Groups

Voice of America
28 Oct 2020, 16:05 GMT+10

Authorities in Iraq's Kurdistan region this week announced the arrest of a dozen people suspected of ties to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a move that observers say has raised tensions among major Kurdish groups.

The Kurdish Region's Security Council (KRSC), an intelligence service led by the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), said in a statement on Monday the arrests happened over an alleged plan to carry out attacks in the autonomous region's capital.

"The suspects planned to attack a foreign diplomatic mission in Erbil; assassinate members of that foreign mission; and carry out attacks on private companies from that country operating in the Kurdistan Region," the KRSC said in the statement Monday.

"They also planned an attack on a major western brand in Kurdistan," it added, without disclosing the names of the threatened private entities or the diplomatic mission.

Kurdish authorities say the foiled attack comes more than a year after the killing of a Turkish consular official in Erbil.

Designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States, the PKK militant group, which denied involvement with any planned attacks, has been fighting for political autonomy for Turkey's 15 million ethnic Kurds for decades, resulting in the deaths of more than 40,000 people, mostly Kurds.

The militant group mainly operates in the ragged Qandil mountain range and maintains several bases in Iraqi Kurdistan which have come under attack by the Turkish military. In June, Turkey launched a new offensive, dubbed Operations Claw-Eagle and Tiger, targeting the group's bases in northern Iraq.

The PKK has accused the KDP of collaborating with Turkey in its air and ground campaign, a claim that the KDP rejects.

"There's no question that the tension between KDP in particular and PKK is mounting," Aliza Marcus, the author of the book Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence, told VOA.

"The two parties have long been at odds, and Turkey's operation has only reinforced views in the PKK that the KDP sees this operation as an opportunity for getting rid of the PKK," said Marcus.

In response to the recent arrest of PKK members in Iraqi Kurdistan, the militant group called it a "baseless" attempt to justify the Turkish offensive on its fighters, who played a key role in defeating the Islamic State terror group in areas such as the northern town of Sinjar.

"The news that they have arrested a group belonging to our movement is entirely baseless," the PKK said in a statement Monday. "The forces that endanger the security of the Kurdistan Region are those of the KDP and the Turkish state."

Turkey has not made any statements about the recent development. But the Turkish government has said its military campaign in northern Iraq would continue to remove PKK militants.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), another Kurdish group that shares power with the KDP in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and has friendly ties with the PKK, discredited the recent statement by KRSC intelligence service.

"We reject this statement and any similar statement by the Council," the PUK said in a statement Monday.

Such different views, experts say, show the deep divisions among Kurdish groups in Iraq.

Diplomat's killing

In July 2019, a group of armed men fatally shot a Turkish diplomat, Osman Kose, in an Erbil restaurant, marking the first killing of diplomatic personnel in the Kurdistan Region since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The oil-rich region, largely spared the violence ravaging the rest of Iraq, has been a hub for foreign businesses investing in high-rise buildings, smart shopping malls and upscale restaurants.

Days after Kose's assassination, the KRG arrested the main suspect, a 27-year-old man from Turkey, who, in a televised confession, said he was a PKK member.

In the past, analysts note, the PKK had generally avoided targeting Turkish interests in Iraqi Kurdistan in order not to provoke the KDP. Kose's killing and, if true, the most recent accusations against the PKK, however, appear to indicate a change in the armed group's tactics as it comes under increased attacks from Turkey.

"If in fact that is the case, then it's a risky move for the PKK ... because it certainly doesn't encourage the KDP to ease up its pressure on the group," analyst Marcus said.

The Sinjar deal

In addition to Turkish pressure, some experts charge that the rise in tensions between the PKK and KDP is further exacerbated by an October 9 deal between Baghdad and Erbil over the governance of the disputed town of Sinjar.

The deal asks for the removal of all militias, including a PKK-affiliated armed Yazidi group called the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS).

In November 2015, YBS helped Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces retake the Yazidi town of Sinjar from IS militants. The group has been a de facto security force in Sinjar.

Some experts doubt the practicality of the agreement.

"For the deal to be viable, it has to take into account local voices and interests," said Bilal Wahab, an Iraq expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "An outside-in approach without domestic buy-in is doomed to fail."

He told VOA that KRG's cooperation with Turkey is largely due to the landlocked region's economic and political dependence on Ankara.

"Shaky but still floating, the KRG economy is unable to survive without Ankara's patronage that keeps KRG's oil exporting spigots open and maintains KRG's control over Iraq's only border crossing with Turkey," Wahab said.

"Officials in Erbil fear a potential deal between Baghdad and Ankara that could sideline Erbil's special status."

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