Iran’s Kurdish Sufis Dash Into Iraq for Funeral, Exposing COVID Border Control Deficiencies

WASHINGTON/SULAYMANIYAH, IRAQ – Hundreds of Iranian Kurdish members of a Muslim sect seeking to attend the funeral of their leader in neighboring Iraq have forced their way through a crossing into Iraqi territory, exposing a weakness in Iranian and Iraqi border controls aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Video clips widely shared on social media showed the Iranian followers of the Sufi Muslim Qadiriyya sect dashing across the Bashmakh crossing from Iran’s Kurdistan province into northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region Thursday. The clips were sent to VOA’s Kurdish service and published online by prominent Iraqi Kurdish news outlets Rudaw and Kurdistan24. VOA could not verify them independently.

In some of the clips, gunshots could be heard as the mostly male Sufis, some dressed in traditional robes and carrying swords and daggers used in Sufi rituals, ran through the crossing.

Other clips showed groups of Sufis walking briskly over the border, some stopping briefly to kiss the ground as they reached the Iraqi side.

Iraqi Kurdish and Iranian officials each accused the other’s security forces of firing the gunshots that appeared to be aimed at stemming or stopping the flow of people through the crossing. They said several people had been injured and taken to hospitals on both sides of the border.

Iraqi Kurdish authorities previously had ordered the Bashmakh crossing to be closed to regular traffic to try to prevent an influx of potential coronavirus carriers from Iran, which has seen the region’s worst outbreak. An exception had been made for businesspeople to use the crossing.

In a phone call with VOA Kurdish, an Iraqi Kurdish official in charge of security at Bashmakh said he could not stop the entry of Iranian Kurdish Sufis because of his limited numbers of border guards and the lack of advanced warning of the influx from Iranian authorities.

“We let in the Sufis to avoid escalating the situation,” said Maj. Gen. Mariwan Sheikh Kamal.

The Iraqi Kurdish commander accused agents of Iran’s top military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, of firing the warning shots during the border incident.

Iranian Kurdish Sufi Muslims participate in a ritual at the Bashmakh border crossing between Iran and Iraq on July 9, 2020, as hundreds of them dash into Iraqi territory to attend the funeral of their spiritual leader. (VOA Kurdish)

Disputing that contention, the deputy governor of Iran’s Kurdistan province, Hussein Khosheqbal, told Iranian state news agency IRNA that Iraqi border guards fired the shots. However, he made no mention of Iranian security forces doing anything to try to stop the Iranian Sufis from breaching the border. Khosheqbal only appealed to other members of the sect not to attempt similar crossings.

Rudaw quoted another Iraqi Kurdish official at the Bashmakh crossing, Mukhtar Haji Ali, as saying the Kurdistan Regional Government deputy prime minister, Qubad Talabani, had ordered the crossing’s complete closure for 24 hours in response to the incident.

The Iranian Sufis who crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan were heading to the city of Sulaymaniyah to participate in funeral rituals for their spiritual leader Sheikh Mohammad al-Kasnazani who had a home there. He died at the age of 82 July 4 while receiving medical treatment in the United States.

A relative of Kasnazani told VOA Kurdish that the spiritual leader’s body would arrive by private jet at Sulaymaniyah’s airport Friday before being taken to the family’s residence in the city for the funeral. Buses were bringing the Iranian Sufis to the residence from the border, about a two-hour drive.

A spokesperson for the KRG’s health ministry, Mohammed Qadir, told Rudaw that the arrival of the Iranian Sufis in Sulaymaniyah without having first undergone medical and administrative checks at the border could cause a “catastrophe” in the coming months.

In a Thursday report, Kurdistan24 said the KRG has confirmed 8,726 coronavirus cases and 294 virus-related deaths in the autonomous region since February. It said the vast majority of the confirmed cases, numbering more than 6,100, were in Sulaymaniyah province.

A website affiliated with the late Sufi spiritual leader had encouraged his followers to join the funeral in Sulaymaniyah in the days after his death.

However, Kasnazani’s aides changed course Thursday, issuing a statement through Iraqi Kurdish news sites calling on his followers to respect health guidelines by conducting mourning rituals at home rather than traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kasnazani’s Qadiriyya order of Sufism draws most of its members from Kurdish regions of Iraq and Iran. It also has followers in Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Central Asia and Morocco.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service and was produced in collaboration with VOA Kurdish and VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk. Lipin and Jedinia reported from Washington and Majeed from Sulaymaniyah. Dishad Anwar contributed from Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Click here for the original Kurdish version of the story. 

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