Amidst reports that Israel’s spy agency Mossad may have orchestrated the murder of Hamas-leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, reports of a strong Israeli presence in northern Iraq continue to surface.
Israel has enjoyed longstanding relations with the Kurds of northern Iraq, though these relations have intensified since the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Israel supported Kurdish rebel efforts against the Iraqi government as part of an Israeli strategy to seek alliances with non-Arabs in the region. Following the 2003 U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, Israel’s Iraq policy shifted to boosting Kurdish strength to balance Shiite militias hostile to Israel.
According to several recent international media reports, Israeli military and intelligence operatives currently have a physical presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. Their primary role in the region is to train elite Kurdish commando units in Israeli anti-terror methods. As early as 2005, the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot reported that there were “dozens of Israelis with a background in elite military combat” in northern Iraq.
Generally entering Iraq across the Turkish border, Israelis enter with foreign passports and present themselves as engineers or agricultural experts to avoid extensive interrogations. Fearing an al Qaeda backlash, Kurdish leaders have denied cooperating with the Jewish state. To date, they have refused to even issue comments on the matter.
When the New Yorker asked Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, to comment on the allegations in 2004, he told the magazine, “The story is simply untrue and the relevant governments know it’s untrue.”
The CIA has provided a different view. “They think they have to be there,” a senior CIA official told the New Yorker. He added that the Israeli presence in northern Iraq is widely acknowledged in the U.S. intelligence community.
Apart from training Kurdish commandos, Kurdish-Israeli relations have expanded by a considerable measure. In July 2003 the Israeli government reversed its embargo on Iraq, opening the door for trade. This allowed Israeli firms to earn hundreds of millions of dollars in exporting military products to Kurdish partners. Payments, however, are made via Turkey, Jordan and Poland to avoid linking Kurdish buyers to Israelis.
Moreover, Kurdish commandos have since accompanied Israeli operatives across the Iraq-Iran border to install sensory devices to monitor suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. “By aligning with the Kurds, Israel gains eyes and ears in Iran, Iraq and Syria,” a former Israeli intelligence officer told the New Yorker.