WASHINGTON - The opening of an Iranian cultural and sports center in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk has sparked fears that Iran is trying to gain a foothold in a city already torn by ethnic-religious tensions.
The Khomeini Cultural and Sports Center was inaugurated last week to coincide with the 37th anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranian authorities say the center is solely a space for sports and socializing.
“Imam Khomeini said the Islamic Revolution is a light to the entire world,” Murtaza Abadi, the Iranian Consul General in Irbil, said during the opening ceremony. “Today, thirty seven years after the revolution… we give this cultural and sports center as a gift to the residents of Kirkuk.”
But the center is sparking a wave of criticism in this mainly Kurdish enclave from people who fear Tehran’s growing impact in the affairs of Iraq.
Iranian influence in Iraq steadily increased after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The battle against the Islamic State further raised its clout, which includes direct support to Iraq’s Shi’ite militias, analysts say. Iran has opened five cultural centers in Iraq since 2003, including one in Baghdad which opened in June 2015.
Kamaran Kirkuky, a member of Kirkuk’s Provincial Council, told VOA that he was concerned that the center was going to be used for “other purposes.”
“Iran can’t help Iraq and Kurdistan,” he said. “We have learned from experience that Iran’s projects don’t provide anything good.”
Kirkuky said he was afraid that the Iraqi Shi’ite militia, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), would increase their presence in Kirkuk by using the center.
“Some members of PMF would have an active role in the center. Shi’ites in general have become very active in Kirkuk recently,” Kirkuky told VOA.
Hasan Jumma, a writer inside Kirkuk, told VOA that opening the center was a ‘shameful’ act and was ‘rejected’ by majority of writers, intellectuals, and journalists.
Jumma said there was already a cultural and sports center in the city and there was no need for letting Iran open a center under Khomeini’s name.
“This is an act of invading Kurdistan by opening up centers, schools, and medical clinics which will increase the cultural and political influence of Iran,” Hasan said.
But a former project manager of Iran’s Mapna Group, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told VOA that an agreement for the construction of the center was signed with Kirkuk officials 14 months ago. It was built by a satellite company related to Mapna Group and cost about $400,000, he said. “The aim of the center is to attract all major cultural and sporting events in the region under one roof,” the manager said.
Iran established cultural centers around the world after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. These centers are guided by Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, which, according to the organization’s objectives, aims to create “awareness among the people of the world regarding the principles, objectives and the stance of the Islamic Revolution of Iran as well as the role it plays in the international arena.”
The governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, praised the Shi’ite-led Iranian government for constructing the center in Kirkuk and its continuing role in Iraq.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has always helped Iraqis and has had a remarkable position in the fight against IS (Islamic State) terrorists from July 2014 until now,” he said.