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Iran opened a new front in its bid for regional domination on Monday, as Iraqi government forces and Shia militias backed by the Tehran regime's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched an attack on the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, in the wake of last month's Kurdish independence referendum.
Thousands of people began fleeing Kirkuk as Iraqi troops and Shia fighters entered the majority-Kurdish city, which lies outside the area controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) but whose residents nevertheless participated in the September 25 referendum.
The Peshmerga General Command -- the central military authority for Kurdish fighters -- lambasted the attack as "a flagrant declaration of war against the nation of Kurdistan."
"This attack, waged by the Iraqi government, Hashd al-Shaabi and forces associated with the Headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards' Quds force, is in retaliation against the people of Kurdistan who have asked for freedom," the Peshmerga statement said, as reported by the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw. "It is revenge against the honorable people of Kirkuk who have shown bravery."
The Hashd al-Shaabi is a Shia front that includes powerful armed Islamist groups like the Badr Brigade, widely regarded as the Iraqi equivalent of Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Denouncing the "plots by the Iraqi government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards," the Peshmerga statement added that the Iraqi government should pay a "heavy price" for the attack on Kirkuk.
As has also been the case in the wars in Syria and Lebanon, top representatives of the IRGC have been spotted on the ground in northern Iraq. On Monday, an Iraqi government spokesman confirmed that Gen. Qassem Soleimani -- who commands the IRGC's elite Quds Force that focuses on foreign operations -- was serving with Hashd al-Shaabi as a "military adviser." A separate Kurdish spokesperson confirmed that "it is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who can openly be seen among the Hashd al-Shaabi."
"Qassem Solaimani...is always among the Haashd al-Shaabi forces," the Kurdish spokesperson said.
Last Friday, US President Donald Trump announced that the IRGC was the target of new American sanctions, describing Iran's leading military institution as the "corrupt personal terror force and militia" of the regime's supreme leader that has "hijacked" large portions of the economy "to fund war and terror abroad." Trump stopped short, however, of carrying out an earlier threat to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization.
In Washington, DC on Monday, American legislators expressed concern over the fighting in Kirkuk, with the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee strongly condemning the Iraqi government for using arms and training supplied by America to attack a "valuable" US partner.
"The United States provided equipment and training to the Government of Iraq to fight ISIS and secure itself from external threats -- not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments, which is a longstanding and valuable partner of the United States," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said in a statement.
"Make no mistake, there will be severe consequences if we continue to see American equipment misused in this way," McCain warned.
McCain called for Kurdish and Iraqi leaders to "engage in a dialogue about the Kurdish people's desire for greater autonomy from Baghdad at an appropriate time and the need to halt hostilities immediately."
Nearly 93 percent of voters chose independence in September's Kurdish referendum.