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Iran Increases Troops Near Kurdistan Region, Threatening Ground Operation

A partial view shows the aftermath of Iranian cross-border attacks in the area of Zargwez, on Sept. 28, 2022. Iran launched cross-border missile and drone strikes that killed nine people in Iraq's Kurdistan region after accusing Kurdish armed groups based there of stoking unrest.

Iran has recently sent new military reinforcements to its western borders close to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and threatened to launch a cross-border ground invasion into Iraqi Kurdistan against Iranian Kurdish opposition groups, a senior Iraqi Kurdish official in Iraq who asked to remain anonymous told VOA.

"Iran has gathered forces near Kurdistan Region and through a delegation of Iraqi military officials, sent a message to the Kurdistan Regional Government that it may conduct a ground operation if forces of East Kurdistan [Iranian Kurdish militants] do not evacuate the area," the official said.

The official added that after Iran's "message," Rebar Ahmed Khalid, Kurdistan Region's Interior Minister, has met with leaders of Iranian Kurdish groups the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the Revolutionary Association of Workers of Iranian Kurdistan, demanding them to withdraw their Peshmerga fighters from the mountainous border region to prevent an Iranian incursion.

Atta Saqzi, a spokesperson for Revolutionary Association of Workers of Iranian Kurdistan, told VOA, "Iran has brought a lot of forces to the borders, and there is even a threat to assassinate political activists of East Kurdistan inside the Kurdistan Region of Iraq."

Saqzi added, "There have been threats against Kurdish party officials for a long time, but after the demonstrations and uprisings of the Kurds in the east [Iranian Kurdistan], Iran has openly threatened to take revenge on the Kurdish parties."

Responding to VOA questioning on whether Washington was aware of Iran's military movement on Kurdistan Region, Vedant Patel, principal deputy spokesperson at the U.S. State Department, said he did not have "any specifics," adding however that "we would take issue with any violation of Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Iran's widespread protests first started on September 16 in Kurdish cities when a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, lost her life following her detention by Iran's morality police for allegedly failing to properly cover her hair with a hijab.

The protests quickly spread to other cities outside Iranian Kurdistan, with violent clashes between security forces and protesters leaving at least 154 people dead, including children, according to the Oslo-based organization Iran Human Rights.

Struggling to quell the protests and blaming Iranian Kurdish militant groups for encouraging popular resistance in Kurdish cities, the Iranian government has shelled the groups' bases on the Iran-Iraq border several times over the past two weeks.

Speaking to VOA, Iranian Kurdish officials have denied they were behind the unrest in Iran and said that the protests were a part of "a spontaneous civil movement."

The attacks entered a new level of escalation on September 28 when Iran's Revolutionary Guards conducted missile and drone attacks on three Iranian Kurdish targets near Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Kirkuk that killed at least 14 people and injured over 30. An American citizen — a mother and her 1-day-old infant — were among those who died in the attack.

The U.S. military said it shot down one of the drones because it posed a threat to U.S. forces in Erbil, capital of Kurdistan Region.

It is unclear if the Kurdistan Regional Government will be able to dissuade Iran from further attacks on the region, given the relatively small amount of leverage the Kurdish government has over the much more powerful Iran, according to officials and experts who spoke to VOA.

Osman Sedary, deputy head of the Peshmerga Committee in the Kurdistan Regional Parliament, told VOA that diplomacy was the best option the region had to address the threat.

"We have to have a peaceful understanding as Kurdistan Region to resolve these issues. Both the Central Government [in Baghdad] and Kurdistan Region are now in continuous discussions to resolve this," Sedary said.

The Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria has survived pressure from the four governments mainly due to the sprawling Zagros Mountains. In northwest Iran, where most of the country's population of over 10 million Kurds live, the Kurds were able to establish their first Kurdistan Republic in 1946 before it was crushed by the Iranian government about 12 months later.

This story originated in VOA's Kurdish Service with contributions from Zhiyar Mohammed and VOA State Department bureau chief Nike Ching.