Claims concerning the involvement of Kurdish forces in the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani

By Hedwig Kuijpers

Yahoonews has published a long piece about the early 2020 murder of the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and the Iraqi resistance leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, written by Jack Murphy and Zach Dorfman.

This article, based on interviews with 15 current and former U.S. officials executed by Jack Murphy (himself a US special forces vet), reveals new details about the Soleimani strike and the Trump administration’s long-running deliberations about killing the Iranian general and other top Iranian officials and proxies. It depicts a more sophisticated operation than previously known, and with a broader list of people potentially targeted for killing. It describes unreported threats to U.S. officials in the aftermath of the strike. The piece also prominently emphasizes the involvement of Counter Terrorism Group or CTG, a Kurdish special forces unit made up of a selection of elite PUK peshmerga’s, led by Polad Talabani.

Claims of Yahoonews

Some excerpts of the long piece show how Kurdish special forces allegedly cooperated with Delta forces and infiltrated both Baghdad airport and were part of a combined team of long-range snipers near the spot the Iranian General was killed.

“In late December 2019, Delta Force operators and other special operations members began filtering into Baghdad in small groups. Kurdish operatives, who played a key role in the killing, had already started infiltrating Baghdad International Airport by that point, going undercover as baggage handlers and other staff members.”

“Three U.S. drones orbited overhead. As the plane taxied off the runway, toward the closed-off portion of the airfield, one of the Kurdish operatives disguised as ground crew guided the aircraft to a halt on the tarmac. When the target stepped off the airplane, Kurdish CTG operators posing as baggage handlers were also present to positively identify him.”

“A member of the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG), an elite Kurdish unit in northern Iraq with deep links to U.S. Special Operations, helped them make the wind call from down range.”

“After the strike, according to two U.S. officials, a Kurdish operative disguised as an Iraqi police officer walked up to the wreckage of Soleimani’s vehicle, snapped photographs and quickly obtained a tissue sample for DNA confirmation before walking away and vanishing into the night.”

The Kurdish operatives mentioned in the article, concern members of CTG or Counter Terrorism Group, which is an elite special forces unit, which was originally set up by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 2002 with US assistance against the threat of Ansar al-Islam in the Halabja region. The group is currently being led by Polad Talabani, brother of current PUK co-President Lahur Sheikh Jangy Talabani, who was the group’s original founder and also the former director of PUK’s intelligence agency Zanyari. Both brothers grew up in the United Kingdom and returned to Kurdistan to assume these positions.

Throughout its existence, the elite special forces unit has been trained and armed by US special forces. It has been involved in operation throughout Iraq, and participated in the battle of Kobani in 2014, to where they were airdropped by US armed forces helicopters. Today, the group remains closely connected to US special forces in Iraq.

Both PUK and CTG deny the claims

The Counter Terrorism Group (CTG) in Sulaimani has fully denied any involvement in the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, a day after a news report claiming a Kurdish role in the killing.

“We deny any involvement or awareness of our forces in such act,” reads a statement from the CTG sent to Rudaw English. “General Qasem Soleimani was a close friend of the late Mam Jalal [Talabani], and counter-terrorism units once fought on the frontlines against terrorism where Qasem Soleimani was also fighting.”

The CTG statement also says it is unclear whether the authors of the Yahoonews report were pointing fingers at them or at another Kurdish counter-terrorism force, which is controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).  A co-author to the report, Jack Murphy, however, stated in a twitter thread that he specifically means the PUK-aligned force.

The CTG statement was republished by multiple prominent Iranian news outlets.

Statements released to PUK-affiliated media outlets by Aras Sheikh Jangy provide for a different point of view. One can read a partial denial in his words, interpreting there might have been CTG operatives active in the operation that lead to General Qassem Soleimani’s death, but PUK had no knowledge of it..

In the statements released to Khendan and Chawder, he says: “The participation of CTG operatives in the operation has not been within PUK’s knowledge, nor in PUK’s reach of action.” He also emphasizes on the close relationship of Mam Jalal Talabani to Qasem Soleimani, and the party’s long-lasting relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Saeed Khatibzade mentioned the Yahoonews report in a speech. He stated that Iran will investigate the allegations made, and has been investigating the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani and Mahdi al-Muhandis in cooperation with the Iraqi government. He also states that Iran intends to bring all perpetrators to justice. Yet, his statement also alleges many details mentioned in the report are being taken with a grain of salt.

Timing and Intentions

The unexpected report published by Yahoonews raises a lot of questions. Why is this report being released now? Who could benefit from the foresight of a fresh conflict in the Iraq-Iran sphere? What are the intentions of the piece’s overtly talkative interviewees and authors? And what about the very detailed narrative, do they fit in what we know of that specific night’s events?

Timing is to say… a bit odd. We’re at the treshold of both the Iraqi and Iranian elections – with even the Yahoonews piece specifically mentioning the drama surrounding the leaked Zarif-tapes – that are both planned for June. We’re also at a time US is negotiating its withdrawal from Iraq and is facing regular attacks of the Iraqi Resistance on their logistical convoys. Who could benefit from the foresight of a fresh ethnic conflict, favorably in the Iraq-Iran sphere? Who would want to provoke Iran?

Even if the Kurds were involved in this operation – which I sincerely doubt provided from the only evidence provided; an article based on interviews written by a former US special forces member know for writing Psy-Op-ish pieces – why would the US want to expose these operatives to danger of Iranian retaliation so blatantly?

Endangered Kurds are always a good excuse to sell a prolonged military stay in Iraq to the American public. Also, the Empire repeatedly seems willing to throw their close ally – the Kurds – under the bus for its own purposes. One or two rockets on Sulaymaniah or the assassination of a Kurdish public figure would suffice to flare-up conflict, undo the close ties between PUK and Iran, accomplish the US’ we-should-stay PR goal, and might even (hey, there’s bonus points!) cause some unrest in West-Iran from within.

 

Strange little details

Now, please reread and focus on these quotes:

“In late December 2019, Delta Force operators and other special operations members began filtering into Baghdad in small groups. Kurdish operatives, who played a key role in the killing, had already started infiltrating Baghdad International Airport by that point, going undercover as baggage handlers and other staff members.”

“Three U.S. drones orbited overhead. As the plane taxied off the runway, toward the closed-off portion of the airfield, one of the Kurdish operatives disguised as ground crew guided the aircraft to a halt on the tarmac. When the target stepped off the airplane, Kurdish CTG operators posing as baggage handlers were also present to positively identify him.”

Why the hell would the US want Kurdish operatives to infiltrate Baghdad airport? Does the CIA not already have a bunch of assets walking through the streets of Baghdad? Why infiltrate a Kurd, whose background is probably traceable for any Iraqi government institution, to become a baggage handler? Wouldn’t that at least ring some bells somewhere?

And most of all: would someone like Qassem Soleimani land on a tarmac with a random Kurdish baggage handler guiding his plane? The report itself states how difficult it was to track Soleimani’s steps and how careful the Iranians were…

“A member of the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG), an elite Kurdish unit in northern Iraq with deep links to U.S. Special Operations, helped them make the wind call from down range.”

Remember about the snipers allegedly present at the place of assassination? How would they use snipers on a main road in flat terrain surrounded by large walls with CCTV and the only place to be seen a security checkpoint, miles away?

Oh, and do American snipers in 2020 with all that funky advanced technology still need a Kurdish operative to ‘help them make the wind call from down range’? To spot or shoot Soleimani through a fricking wall?!

 

Investigation

Both Kurdish parties involved reacted with lightspeed to the allegations made in the report with a full or partial denial. The details, the timing, the political implications intended, all make the report questionable. Yes, there is a possibility the US would take local assets bound to specific groups on a field trip, both in this case and in other conflicts around the globe. Yet, I find it unlikely that 3-decade-long Iranian ally PUK – the Kurdish party closest to Iran – would risk turning in its good relationship with its neighbor for dispute.

I also believe the Iranian authorities are not fooled easily into a blunt reaction to some news article published on an American website. This can be seen in the already-shown restraint.

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