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Iran has attacked Iraqi target over gas talks involving Israel – officials

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Revolutionary Guards take responsibility for attack on Erbil - Iranian state media
FILE PHOTO: View of a damaged building after rocket attacks in Erbil, Iraq March 13, 2022. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari/ /File Photo

March 28, 2022

By Ahmed Rasheed and Orhan Coskun

BAGHDAD/ANKARA (Reuters) – A nascent plan for Iraq’s Kurdistan region to ship gas to Turkey and Europe – with Israeli help – is part of what has angered Iran, this month targeting the Kurdish capital Erbil with ballistic missiles Hitting missiles, Iraqi and Turkish officials say.

The March 13 attack on Erbil shocked officials across the region for its ferocity and was a rare publicly declared attack by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The IRGC said the attack hit Israeli “strategic centers” in Erbil and was in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike that killed two of its members in Syria.

However, the choice of target confused many officials and analysts. Most of the 12 rockets hit the villa of a Kurdish businessman working in the energy sector of the autonomous Kurdistan Region.

Iraqi and Turkish officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity this week, said they believe the attack was intended as a multi-pronged message to US allies in the region – but that a key trigger was a plan Kurdish To pump gas to Turkey and Europe, with Israeli participation.

“There were two recent meetings between Israeli and US energy officials and specialists at the villa to discuss the transportation of Kurdish gas to Turkey via a new pipeline,” an Iraqi security official said.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry and the IRGC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A senior Iranian security official told Reuters the attack was a “multipurpose message to many people and groups. It’s up to them how to interpret it. Whatever[Israel]is planning, from the energy sector to agriculture, will not materialize.”

Two Turkish officials confirmed recent talks between US and Israeli officials to discuss Iraq’s supply of natural gas to Turkey and Europe, but did not say where they took place.

The Iraqi security official and a former US official with knowledge of the plans said Kurdish businessman Baz Karim Barzanji, whose mansion was hit by the Iranian missiles, is working on developing the gas export pipeline.

The disclosure places the Iranian attack on Erbil in the context of the energy interests of regional actors and not, as widely reported, in a single Israeli military attack on the IRGC.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was not familiar with the matter. Barzanji did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Iraqi Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani’s office denied that meetings with US and Israeli officials were held at Barzanji’s mansion to discuss a pipeline. The Kurds deny that there is any Israeli military or official presence on their territory.

Approach between Turkey and Israel

The Iraqi, Turkish and Western sources spoke mainly on condition of anonymity as they are not allowed to make statements to the media.

They said the move is a politically sensitive time for Iran and the region: The gas export plan could threaten Iran’s place as a key gas supplier to Iraq and Turkey while its economy still suffers from international sanctions.

Efforts to revive a nuclear deal between Iran and the West have stalled in recent weeks, casting doubt on prospects for lifting sanctions on Tehran, including on the energy sector.

It also comes as Israel, Iran’s biggest enemy in the region, and Turkey are strengthening ties and exploring further energy cooperation as sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine threaten serious bottlenecks across Europe.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said last month that Turkey and Israel could work together to ship Israeli natural gas to Europe. Erdogan also met with Barzani and said Ankara wants to sign a natural gas supply deal with Iraq.

Iraqi and Turkish officials gave no specific details on the plan to pump gas from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey, did not say how far along it was or Israel’s role in the project.

“The timing of the attack in Erbil is very interesting. It seems that it was more focused on northern Iraq’s energy exports and possible cooperation that would include Israel,” said one of the Turkish officials.

“There have been some talks about natural gas exports from northern Iraq and we know that Iraq, the United States and Israel were involved in the process. Turkey also supports this,” the official added.

The Iraqi security official said that at least two meetings with US and Israeli energy specialists took place at Barzanji’s mansion, who explained the choice of target for the Iranian missile attack. No one was seriously injured in the attack, but the villa was badly damaged.

An Iraqi government official and a Western diplomat in Iraq said Barzanji was known to receive foreign officials and businessmen at his home, including Israelis.

The Iraqi security official and former US official said Barzanji’s KAR Group company is working to speed up the gas export pipeline. The new pipeline would eventually connect to an already completed pipeline on the Turkish side of the border, the former US official said.

The KAR Group could not immediately be reached for comment.

KAR Group built and manages the Kurdish region’s domestic pipeline, Kurdish Presidency chief of staff Fawzi Harir said. It also owns a third of Kurdistan’s oil export pipeline under a lease. The rest belongs to Russia’s Rosneft.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Amina Ismail in Erbil, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Rowena Edwards in London; Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Maha El Dahan in Dubai, Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem Additional reporting, writing by John Davison in Baghdad, Editor by William Maclean)

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Bobby Allyn

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