Shiite Turkmens and the Kurds in the town have clashed a number of times in recent years in their struggle for the upper hand. In this vein, the local Kurdish residents and the PUK leadership alike say that Iran has unparalleled influence with the Shiite Turkmens in the area.
One senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operative who is said to have played a crucial role in the Kirkuk region for at least the past decade is Haj Ali Eqbalpour, known amongst the locals in Tuz Khormato as “Mr. Eqbali.” Indeed, in the town of Chamchamal on Oct. 18, a group of displaced Kurds from Tuz Khormato were waiting in a mosque to be given food supplied by charity groups. When asked if Iran played any role in their town, two young men in their late 20s and a 51-year-old man replied to Al-Monitor, “Mr. Eqbali is in charge of the Turkmens there.”
Many senior officials in the region know the powerful Iranian officer, but no one appears to dare to speak of him, perhaps for fear of Tehran’s wrath. Amid all this, the shadowy Eqbalpour seems to be hiding in plain sight, appearing all over PMU Facebook pages, albeit without being named.
Indeed, on Oct. 18, two days after the peshmergas’ defeat in Kirkuk, an official Facebook page of a PMU unit posted an image of several top PMU leaders in Kirkuk. “To the honorable people of Kirkuk, we congratulate you for these victories and confirm that Kirkuk province is under the control and protection of the federal government,” read the statement.
In the picture, on the far right, stands a tall, athletic man with broad shoulders and grey hair and beard wearing a green uniform. The same man appears in a separate picture taken in south Kirkuk with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the top PMU commander and close ally of Iran, on Oct. 14, alongside senior PMU leader in northern Iraq Abu Raza Najar.