A senior Iranian military commander repeatedly warned Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq to withdraw from the oil city of Kirkuk or face an onslaught by Iraqi forces and allied Iranian-backed fighters, Kurdish officials briefed on the meetings said.
Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, travelled to Iraq’s Kurdistan region to meet Kurdish leaders at least three times this month before the Baghdad government’s lightning campaign to recapture territory across the north.
The presence of Soleimani on the frontlines highlights Tehran’s heavy sway over policy in Iraq, and comes as Shia Iran seeks to win a proxy war in the Middle East with its regional rival and US ally, Sunni Saudi Arabia.
Soleimani met leaders from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish political parties in northern Iraq, in the city of Sulaimania the day before Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered his forces to advance on Kirkuk, according to a PUK lawmaker briefed on the meeting.
His message was clear: withdraw or risk losing Tehran as a strategic ally.
“Abadi has all the regional powers and the West behind him and nothing will stop him from forcing you to return back to the mountains if he decides so,” the lawmaker quoted Soleimani as telling the PUK leadership.
The Iranian general evoked late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s massive attack on a Kurdish rebellion in 1991, when almost the entire Kurdish population fled northern Iraq to the mountains, the PUK lawmaker said.
“Soleimani’s visit … was to give a last-minute chance for the decision-makers not to commit a fatal mistake,” said the lawmaker, who like others interviewed in this story declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Commanders of the Iraqi Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, have accused Iran of orchestrating the Shia-led Iraqi central government’s push into areas under their control, a charge senior Iranian officials have denied.
But Iran has made no secret of its presence in Iraq.
“Tehran’s military help is not a secret anymore. You can find General Soleimani’s pictures in Iraq everywhere,” said an official close to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“Now, beside political issues, Kirkuk’s oil is a very key element for Iran, which is an OPEC member. Control of those oil fields by Iran’s enemies would be disastrous for us. Why should we let them enter the oil market?.”
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