The struggles of the embattled Kurdish Peshmerga to repel Islamist insurgents have put the U.S. and Iran on the same side, with both rushing to reinforce a revered fighting force to defeat a common enemy.
U.S. airstrikes this week helped the Peshmerga retake two towns on the outskirts of Erbil that they had lost days earlier in a stunning defeat that put the radical Sunni group Islamic State 20 miles from the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
On Monday, as Peshmerga fighters basked in relief in one of those towns, Makhmour, a reporter witnessed senior Kurdish commanders meeting with Iranian advisers in the operations command center there.
On Aug. 21, Kurdish social media activists published pictures that appear to depict of elements of the Iranian 81st Armored Division entering southern Kurdistan via Khaneghein, north of Jalawla.
The 81st is a battle-hardened division that fought hard during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. And before that, it had fought Kurdish insurgents in Iran’s restive southern provinces. Today the 81st Division is fighting alongside the Kurds.
After the Iran-Iraq War, the division reorganized and re-armed. As other units gained Russian T-72 tanks, the 81st gathered up all the leftover, American-made M-60s and M-48s. More recently, the 81st broke into three largely independent brigades—the 181st and 281st Armored Brigades and the 72nd Mechanized Brigade.
The units the activists spotted in Kurdistan most likely are elements of the 181st, as it’s responsible for defending the Sar-e-Pole Zahab border town near Khaneghein. Previously, there had been a build-up of armored units on the Iranian side of the border.