SULIMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) — Dara Qureshi scrolls through the contacts on his phone, each name an alias for activists across the border in neighboring Iran, where protests have been raging for two weeks.
Qureshi, a member of one of many Iranian Kurdish opposition parties exiled in Iraq, responds to one of them, “Brwa,” who asks how to access Starlink, a satellite constellation operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, after the business magnate promised to allow Iranians affected by state-imposed internet restrictions to use it.
“What is your advice, comrade?” writes the unknown activist. Qureshi makes inquiries, knowing there are only a few precious minutes before the internet will cut out for the person on the other side.
The support that Kurdish exiles like Qureshi have given to protesters in Iran have fueled allegations by Iranian authorities that the protests, which have spread to over 40 cities, were entirely organized and buttressed by foreign elements.
But Iranian Kurdish exiles say their role is small. They say the Iranian government is trying to scapegoat them to divert attention away from the widespread anger fueling protests that erupted nationwide, have brought in multiple ethnic groups and have been focused on the government's treatment of women.
The protests erupted after a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, died in custody. Morality police in the Iranian capital, Tehran, arrested her for allegedly not wearing the mandatory Islamic headscarf properly.
This week, Iran sharply stepped up its military operations against Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish opposition groups, launching three sets of drone and missile attacks targeting their party bases in northern Iraq, killing at least nine. The strikes drew condemnation from Iraqi officials and the international community. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq was later summoned by the Foreign Ministry.
Iran also has cracked down on others after Amini's death, announcing Friday that it has arrested nine foreigners over the demonstrations.
The London-based Amnesty International said Friday it has acquired leaked government documents showing that Iran ordered its security forces to “severely confront” protesters. It said security forces have killed at least 52 people since protests over the Amini’s death began nearly two weeks ago.
Iranian state TV has reported that at least 41 protesters and police have been killed since the demonstrations began Sept. 17. Hundreds of people have been arrested.
The Kurdish opposition parties say their reach is limited to majority Kurdish regions in western Iran.
“It’s true the political parties here issued a call for protests, but the ones who went into the street and organized are inside Iran; it has nothing to do with party proclamations,” said Rosaline Kamangir, 32, an Iranian women’s rights activist and a Kurd who is regularly in touch with female protesters inside Iran.
“The organizers are local, and perhaps they see eye-to-eye with the parties, ultimately they are acting based on their own beliefs,” she said.
The opposition groups jointly issued calls for a general strike and protests in the western Kurdish region of Iran after the death of the 22-year-old Amini.
With her family origins in the Kurdish city of Saqqez, Amini’s death has sparked particular anger in Iran’s Kurdish regions. Kurds refer to her by her Kurdish name, Zhina. Iranians often have an official name and another they use more regularly, and Mahsa is a Persian name on her official records.
The Kurdish majority areas are home to a decades-old separatist movement that precedes the 1979 Islamic revolution, and in past decades it has morphed into a low-level guerrilla insurgency that trades fire with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
But the protests have not taken a particularly Kurdish nationalist tone. Instead, as in the rest of the country, Amini has become a symbol of the oppression of women, rallying anger against Iran's repressive policies. Many women protesters burned their hijabs during the rallies and cut off their hair.
“I didn’t know Mahsa, but her death pushed me to protest,” said Nisreen, a woman in the Kurdish Iranian town of Bukan. “Her death made me angry. Women in Iran are oppressed, we have no opportunities,” the 34-year-old said, speaking to the AP via WhatsApp on condition her last name not be used, fearing reprisal.
The first protest she attended in Bukan began peacefully, “then the shooting and arrests started,” she said. On one occasion, the person standing next to her was hit.
Opposition parties have clout in her area, she said. “But that is not why I am protesting.”
Every household in Iran’s Kurdish regions knows someone linked to the Kurdish opposition parties in exile or has a family member who belongs to them, activists and residents said.
Banned inside Iran, the main parties based in Iraq are the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iran; Komala, which has Marxist leanings; and the Kurdistan Free Life Party, or PJAK.
“Everyone among us has a relative protesting in Iran, everyone knows someone who has been arrested,” said Kawser Fattahi, 33, a member of Komala, her fingers trembling while holding up a cigarette. Two of her cousins in Iran were taken and haven’t been heard from in a week, she said. Qureshi’s uncle was detained during a protest in Bukan.
Fattahi had been at her Komala party’s headquarters compound in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Koya when it was bombed in one of the Iranian strikes. She spoke to the AP in Sulimaniyah, where she arrived Wednesday.
After the bombings, party members dispersed from their compound and took up residence with friends or in the rugged mountains.
Fattahi left her hometown Bukan in Iran a few years ago, fearing arrest because of her political activities distributing party leaflets.
Her mother and brother are both protesting, she said. The last time she saw them was when they crossed the border illegally to see her some months back.
Like most party members she keeps two phones, one for daily use in Iraq and another, to speak to relatives and party affiliates back home.
Because of the danger in crossing the border from Iraq, the opposition parties’ presence and activities inside Iran have always been limited. Social media is used to encourage supporters to take part in protests and conduct general strikes, said Fattahi.
But now, with widespread internet outages in Iran, their supporters have not been able to access social media.
“Most of our communication requires the internet,” said Qureshi. “And when they call us, it’s always from an unregistered number.”
Kamangir received hundreds of messages a day at the start of the protests in mid-September. Now she receives bursts of updates every two days, she said.
“Today, it’s gone dark,” she said.