An explosion that took place near Sulaymaniyah airport in Iraq’s northern semi-autonomous Kurdish region on Friday has escalated tensions between rival Kurdish parties in the country.
“This evening, April 7, 2023 at 4:18 pm, an explosion happened near the fences of the Sulaymaniyah International Airport, which caused no material damage or casualties,” read a statement of Sulaymaniyah security forces.
The blast came days after Turkey announced that it has closed its airspace to flights to and from Sulaymaniyah, citing increased activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as its “infiltration” into the airport.
“We know that the PKK has a very serious establishment in Sulaymaniyah,” said Turkey’s presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın on Wednesday. “No matter where the PKK exists, we will never allow it to nest there and become a threat to our country,” he said.
Two helicopter crashes in northern Iraq last month claimed the lives of nine fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on board who were on their way to Sulaymaniyah.
Following Friday’s blast, local media reported that the explosion was caused by a drone attack aiming to assassinate Mazloum Abdi, the leader of the SDF, which Turkey sees as affiliated to the PKK.
The SDF officials and the Kurdish-led regional government in northeast Syria denied that Abdi was in Sulaymaniyah at the time of the attack. Farad Shami, the SDF spokesperson, said on Twitter that the reports concerning an attack on Abdi were fake news.
Fethullah al-Husseini, a representative of the Kurdish self-rule administration in northeast Syria, said Abdi was carrying on his work in northeast Syria.
However, the Wall Street Journal reported that US military personnel were in the convoy with Abdi at the time of the attack.
“I can confirm that there was a strike on a convoy in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan Region. That convoy included U.S. military personnel. There were no casualties,” the newspaper quoted Colonel Joe Buccino, spokesman for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), as saying in an email. “We are currently investigating this attack,” Buccino added.
The CENTCOM statement did not specifically mention Abdi or Turkey.
“We forcefully oppose any action that threatens the safety and security of US personnel,” the WSJ quoted Colonel Buccino as saying. “US forces remain in Iraq and Syria in support of local partner forces to achieve the enduring defeat of ISIS,” he said.
The SDF is the key ally of the United States in its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. Close cooperation between Turkey’s NATO ally and the Kurdish armed group has soured the relations between Ankara and Washington since 2014.
Meanwhile, Friday’s blast has also heightened tensions between rival Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in northern Iraq.
“This dangerous situation is the result of the occupation of government institutions and their use for illegal activities,” read a statement from Jotiar Adil, the spokesperson of the KDP-controlled Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
“The behavior of an authoritarian party regime in Sulaymaniyah led to the closure of Turkish airspace towards Sulaymaniyah International Airport and then this attack,” Adil said.
Bafel Talabani, head of the Sulaymaniyah-based PUK, condemned the attack in a statement. “Destroying the peace of the region and the city of Sulaymaniyah is a red line,” he stated.
Qubad Talabani, deputy prime minister of the KRG and brother of Bafel Talabani, said that Adil spoke for the rival KDP and could not talk for the whole government.
“Targeting a civilian airport is not only breaching Iraq’s sovereignty, but is also a dangerous escalation on the lives of the people of Kurdistan,” he said.