How Iran is Winning game of chess in Kirkuk

In yet another picture posted on Sept. 18, the same man appears on the right-hand side of Muhandis, Najar and an unnamed colonel from the Iraqi army’s 16th Division in an operation room, seen making preparations to retake the nearby IS stronghold of Hawijah.

Three Kurdish sources, including a senior PUK official, revealed to Al-Monitor that the unidentified person seen in these pictures is none other than Eqbalpour, IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani’s representative in the area.

As such, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Oct. 22 call on Iranian-backed militias and their Iranian advisers, such as Eqbalpour, to “go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control” shows a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the US government about how the IRGC operates in the region. Unlike the United States, Iran often stays in any strategic region for the long haul, whether it be Lebanon, Syria or Iraq.

Back in the spring of 1988, when the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — then backed by the West, including Washington — crushed the Kurdish rebellion, the peshmerga and their families fled to the Iranian side of the border, according to the top peshmerga commander at the time, Nawshirwan Mustafa, who published several books about the peshmerga war with the Iraqi army.

There, one young IRGC officer was appointed to work with the newly arrived refugees, who were scattered across camps in western Iran. That officer was Eqbalpour, who has since coordinated with Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and has become a fluent Kurdish speaker, albeit with a strong accent, a senior PUK official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. While the Kurds consider themselves pro-Western, there is a deep distrust toward the West, including Americans, and the recent debacle in Kirkuk has only acted to further reinforce that notion, particularly as Iran has emerged on the winning side.

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