DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) _ Iran’s little-noticed incursions into Iraq helped spark the region’s latest conflict, but the outcome has undermined Tehran’s influence.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein cited Iran’s support for one Kurdish faction as the reason he sent his army into northern Iraq to help a rival Kurdish group.
Since then, the conflict has taken several twists, not all of them to Iran’s liking.
Saddam has cemented control of northern Iraq and effectively eliminated the ``no-fly″ zone patrolled by the United States and its allies to protect the Kurds from his military.
The move has prompted tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurdish refugees to gather on the Iranian border, according to Iranian officials. As of Wednesday only 5,000 had entered.
Iran also has lost the control it had gained in the region through its support for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the group that was routed by the Saddam-allied Kurdish Democratic Party.
``It seems from a distance that the Iranians didn’t see this one coming, otherwise they would have bolstered the PUK more,″ said Philip Robins, a Middle East expert at Oxford University.
In a telephone interview, he said Iran had been building its presence in northern Iraq for nearly two years to show the United States that any arrangement in the region would have to take Iran into account.
``Potentially, Iran has lost quite a lot,″ Robins said.
Still, there is one bright spot from Iran’s perspective: The prospect of Kurds carving out an independent state on its border has been squelched.
Iran was never happy with the Kurdish ``safe haven″ established in northern Iraq by the U.S. and their allies after the 1991 Gulf War.
Iran and Turkey have restive Kurdish minorities of their own, and feared the ``safe haven″ could be used as a base to launch attacks or could evolve into an independent Kurdish state. That now seems far-fetched.
For decades, Iran and Iraq have fought a proxy war with the Kurds, backing rival factions when it was advantageous, cutting them loose when it wasn’t.
Iran’s cross-border forays into northern Iraq caused barely a ripple in July and August, but Saddam’s reaction drew immediate international attention and raised the stakes.
Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Kamal Kharrazi, said in July that Iran took action because Iraq was ``not in a position to exercise effective control over the northern part of its territory.″
A month later, Iraqi villagers in the northeast said Iran began shelling on Aug. 16, and sent troops in afterwards.
Fighting between the Kurdish factions broke out on Aug. 17, ending a fragile cease-fire and setting the stage for Saddam to launch his troops into the north. On Aug. 31, the Iraqi military and its Kurdish rivals captured Irbil, the de facto Kurdish capital.
With Saddam in effective control of the north, Iran will find it more difficult to exercise influence in the region.