Iranian Bombings in Iraqi Kurdistan: Rising Violence and the Beginning of a Serious Conflict

Two months after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish student, was beaten to death by the authorities for not having worn her veil correctly, the revolution continues in Iran. So does the repression of the Mullah’s regime which, according to an Iran Human Rights (IHR) report from 16 November, has killed 342 people, and sentenced 5 protesters to death. 

In Iraqi Kurdistan, Iranian drones and ballistic missiles targeted the two major revolutionary Iranian-Kurdish parties in exile, the Komala and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), on 28 September and 14 November.

The escalation between Iran and its Kurdish minority threatens to open up a new forefront and further unsettle the region. These tensions are nothing new, and the relations between Teheran and the Kurds have never been quiet. A centuries-old fight divides them; on the one hand, Iran refuses to grant any rights to its Kurdish citizens, and on the other, Kurdish separatists continue their fight to achieve autonomy, like their Iraqi-Kurdish neighbors, with whom they have found refuge. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, more than 30,000 Kurds have been killed in battle. And in exile, behind the natural border of the Zagros Mountains, the Iranian-Kurdish militia parties hope to escape the fire of the Iranian army by placing themselves under the joint sovereign protection of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraq. 

Iran threatens Iranian-Kurdish groups exiled in Iraqi Kurdistan

Two recent events demonstrate that Iranian Kurds remain within reach of large-scale strikes. The events of 14 November confirmed that Iran, under pressure from the ongoing popular revolt, is ready for military escalation. Unofficially, Iran informed the KRG that Iranian-Kurdish parties should withdraw from the borders, lay down their arms, and leave the region, with an ultimatum on 25 October. Both the PDKI and Komala, which are present on lands they consider to be part of larger Kurdistan, did not respond. Both were targeted by several dozen suicide drones and ballistic missiles on 28 September, after several days of artillery strikes against border villages.

The two Iranian attacks targeted the PDKI camp in Koya and the Komala camp in Zergwez, around ten kilometers from Iran, near the city of Sulaymaniyah. The PDKI reported two deaths among the Peshmerga and five wounded, following four ballistic missile attacks at the party’s administrative center in Koya. In Zergwez, five suicide drones crashed on the base, without causing injuries, since the Peshmergas left to hide in the mountains since the last attack in September.  

Navid Merhawar, a veteran Komala leader who only accepts meetings at night in an isolated tent away from the camp, confirms: “The threat is now constant.” This Monday’s attack underscores his words: “There are drones watching us day and night. We are receiving threats. Iran has many troops on the borders. There is the armed force of the Revolutionary Guards, as well as tanks and a whole mass of heavy artillery. They are threatening us and saying they will kill us.”. 

While Merhawar recognizes the inability of Iraq and the autonomous region to repel Iranian attacks, this former Peshmerga colonel, slightly wounded during the last attack in late September, states that his party is “ready to defend and protect itself if Iran wants to fight”.

The death of Mahsa Amini sparks a new confrontation between Iran and Kurdish parties 

Despite a handful of Peshmergas guarding this member of the management of Komala with Kalashnikovs, Navid Merhawar denies directing attacks towards Iran, but asserts his party’s support for the revolt against the Iranian regime. “After the death of Zhina (Mahsa Amini’s Kurdish name), we asked the Kurdish people of Iran to take to the streets, to welcome her body and protest against this latest crime against Kurds. We led the demonstrations and strikes, and we stand against this regime’s laws”.

Navid Merhawar asserts: “This is the biggest blow we can strike against the Islamic Republic. This is not just a matter of fighting with firearms”.

When talking about the ideological foundation for the struggle his party has been waging for decades against Iran, Merhawar’s speech becomes crystal clear: “Iran knows our demands. We have political demands as a Kurdish nation, because our rights have never been taken into account. The successive regimes of the Shah and the Ayatollahs have always suppressed the Kurds and occupied our country. We are not voluntarily part of Iran, we are occupied. That is why we are fighting for our rights and against the Islamic Republic”. 

September 28th attacks: War crimes

While there were no human casualties in the Komala, the attacks on the PDKI in Koya resulted in tragedy. In addition to two Peshmergas killed and five wounded on 14 November, the attack on 28 September could be regarded as a war crime. On that day, the administrative center, in addition to a UNHCR-funded primary school and a refugee camp where around 730 Iranian Kurdish families lived, were subjected to heavy shelling.

However, Soran Nuri, one of the top leaders of the PDKI, affirms: “The PDKI has not launched any military combat (…) our armed forces are not fighting within Iran at the moment (…) but we support our people in what has now become a revolution in Rojhelat (Eastern Kurdistan) and the rest of Iran”. 

In the refugee camp where now resides the party that created the short-lived Mahabad Kurdish Republic in 1946, lives today this Peshmerga member, who has been fighting for the PDKI for the last 23 years. He describes the heavy outcome of this attack, sitting in the living room of a house whose walls were cracked by the airstrikes, which struck more than a hundred meters away: “More than 35 drones and missiles were launched by Iran. More than 25 were wounded and nine killed (…) All the families have since left”. 

On site, the prevailing mood is that the worst has been avoided. The state of the school clearly demonstrates the international tragedy that almost took place on 28 September at 10.30am. 200 children aged between 7-15 were in class. Zaniar Behri, who was teaching that day, says: “It was sudden. The first explosion was very strong. It scared and shocked us… then there was a second, and a third explosion… they did not stop and they kept getting closer! We realized that not even brick walls would protect us and fled the school to hide elsewhere”. Behri does not hesitate to call the attack an “international crime”, aware that “a great tragedy could have happened if we had waited and stayed inside the school for another five minutes”. In the end, only minor injuries to students and teachers were reported. 

Clues of Iran’s impunity abound: some of the school’s walls – the few still standing in what looks like a bombed area, marked by shell holes – are labelled UNHCR; and in the courtyard, Soran Nuri collects small lead projectiles, fragments of cluster bombs. These are weapons banned by the Oslo Convention, signed by 108 countries, but not Iran.

September 28th attacks: Human tragedy

A few hundred meters away from the school, in the refugee camp where only a few armed Peshmerga now live, two women died. One of them, Shima, five days from turning 32, was pregnant and soon expecting a child.

Her husband, Zanyar Rahmani, a Peshmerga fighter still in shock, recounts the most terrible day of his life: “I heard explosions, I was at work. I ran as fast as I could… When I got to a few dozen meters from the house, I saw Shima at the door, waiting for me. That’s when the missile fell”. 

From his house, where the tragedy occurred and he still lives, Rahmani points to where he was, closer to the strike than his wife, who was hit by a piece of debris. At first, he suffered serious injuries to his head, torso, stomach, and legs. Confused, he got up: “I was totally disoriented. I was not even aware of my condition (…) I shouted ‘get in the car’. She fell down, and went half-unconscious. I picked her up, brought her closer to the car and she completely lost consciousness. She was also losing blood. We took her to Koya Hospital”. 

Arriving at the hospital, he says: “She regained consciousness once, then a second time in the operating room. But her ribs were broken and she could not breathe properly”. The baby was extracted from his dying mother’s womb, but survived not more than two days. “I keep seeing the scene over and over again”, Rahmani repeats, overwhelmed by the reality of their death, right at the doorstep of the house where he thought they would spend happy days as a family. 

Iran’s “diversion attempts” and their dangerous consequences

Iran claims these attacks targeted “terrorists” from Iranian-Kurdish parties behind the current anti-government protests. And whereas neither the PDKI nor Komala deny their influence on the Iranian-Kurdish side, both describe these bombings as “diversion attempts” on Iran’s side, to splinter the opinion of Iranian protestors and lead them to believe their revolution is an attempt at Kurdish separatism.  

The Iranian youth remains mostly united in its fight against the Islamic regime. But the human and geopolitical consequences of these attacks against the Iranian Kurds could have highly destabilizing consequences for the region. However, neither the protests of the international community, led by the United States and the United Nations, nor those of the federal government in Baghdad or the autonomous government in Erbil, seem to be able to stop Teheran’s mad escalation. And the attacks of 28 September and 14 November offer us a glimpse of what is to come.

VIABenoit Drevet