Former covert Israeli forces 'training Kurds in Iraq'
Conal Urquhart in Tel Aviv and Michael Howard in Sulaymaniyah
Friday December 2, 2005
Israeli firms are carrying out military training and commercial activities in Kurdish areas of north Iraq, according to reports in an Israeli newspaper. Yedioth Ahronoth reported yesterday that dozens of former members of Israel's elite and covert forces were training Kurdish fighters in anti-terrorism techniques.
Other companies, the newspaper said, were involved in telecommunications and infrastructure projects such as the building of an airport at Irbil.
Iraq and Israel are still officially at war, though since the 1960s Israel and the Iraqi Kurds have had a relationship. A spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry said his country had no relationship with the new Iraq and it remained "at war".
The article follows detailed reports in the New Yorker last year saying that Israel had become heavily involved with the Kurds from 2003. It suggested Israel had a strategic interest in supporting Kurdish forces, as a counterweight to Sunni and Shia groups in Iraq. Involvement in the region also gave Israel better access to intelligence from Syria and Iran, particularly Iran's nuclear programme.
Israel supported Kurdish rebels against the Ba'ath regime in Baghdad until 1975. The Kurds, who are Muslim, have never been as anti-Israeli as many Muslims in other countries. They have felt persecuted by Sunnis and have resented Yasser Arafat's support for Saddam Hussein.
A spokesman for the Kurdistan regional government said: "It is possible that people with Israeli passports visit. Many Jews from Kurdistan resettled in Israel. We do not discriminate against any nationality that wants to ... work in Kurdistan, but there are no official links."
Israel cannot officially admit its involvement in the regime because it might encourage extremist groups, such as al-Qaida in Iraq. But Israelis are regularly seen in the Kurdish towns of northern Iraq, working as security guards and trainers. It is not clear whether they work for international security firms or are doing independent work.
Israelis representing private firms were seen looking for opportunities at a recent trade fair in Irbil. Yesterday's report also stated that Israeli companies had set up a base in a remote area of Kurdistan, using it for weapons and anti-terrorism training and bringing in "dozens of motorcycles, sniffer dogs, Kalashnikov-upgrading devices, flak jackets, uniforms and helmets, all Israeli-made". It claims Israelis pose as agricultural and engineering experts.
Development and security projects in Kurdistan are undertaken by several countries, including Turkey, the US, Iran, Britain and Germany. Israel's main ally in the region is Turkey, which is concerned that the Kurds might declare independence from Iraq. Turkey, like Syria and Iran, has a substantial Kurdish minority within its population.