Iraqi Kurds Back PKK Despite Being Displaced by Recent Fighting

Abdulla Saeed walks to a makeshift tent a few kilometers from his deserted home. He hums a classic Kurdish song as he follows his donkey down a mountainside in northeast Iraq. Saeed, 61, is ferrying clothes and other essentials to eight members of his family who fled their home following a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdistan Workers Party, PKK, rebels in February.

The bases of the PKK and its offshoot the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, PJAK, are hidden in the treacherous terrain of the Qandil mountain range, which stretches across Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Since 1984, the PKK -- viewed by the Americans as a terrorist group -- and Turkey have engaged in bloody battles that have claimed thousands of lives in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. Turkey's week-long incursion in February was the latest of some 20 similar military operations over the last two decades.

Meanwhile, fighting between Iran and the PJAK has been intensifying in the Qandil region since 2006, and heavy shelling occurred there earlier this week.

There is no official record of the damage that has occurred in northern Iraq as the result of the ongoing conflicts. However, locals say the recent Turkish incursion damaged dozens of villages in the area. Around 160 families from six villages in Zharawa district near the Qandil mountains fled the fighting and now live in an improvised camp, according to Azad Hasso, the district head.

Mohammad Muhssin, a local Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, official, said the fighting also uprooted around 150 families from their villages close to the Turkish border in the Amedi area, northeast of the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil. Muhssin said five bridges have been destroyed in Amedi. "People from more than 200 villages used those bridges. Now the roads have been cut," he said.

Villagers said they faced economic hardship as a result of the clashes. Hassan Wssu Marf, 59, from the village of Razga in the Qandil range, said he left his home several months ago. "We can't go back to raise our livestock or to take care of our orchards," he said. "It's terrible."

Yet despite the damage and suffering caused to civilians, public support for Kurdish rebels -- particularly the PKK -- remains high. "They are Kurds and demand their own rights," said Saeed. "Neither Iran nor Turkey wants [the fighters] along the Iraqi border because [they] prevent them from destabilizing Iraq."

"I want [the PKK] to be victorious," said Goran Faris, a 25-year-old secondary school teacher in Sulaimaniyah, the largest city in northeastern Iraq. "I love them because they were the only ones who stood up to the Turkish incursion and defended Kurdistan."

The PKK and PJAK -- along with many international human rights groups -- claim that Iran and Turkey repress Kurds. However, Turkey and Iran maintain that the guerrillas are separatists, and have expressed support for each other's military operations against them. Syria, which is also concerned about separatist Kurdish groups gaining power in northern Iraq, also backed the Turkish incursion against the PKK earlier this year. At that time, the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, indicated it would not stand against the Turkish military if its operations were limited to PKK and PJAK areas in the Qandil mountain range.

"The presidential order was clear," said Muhssin. "Targeting civilians and areas far from the borders [were] red lines, and the Peshmarga [would] respond to them." However, Faris said he was frustrated that the KRG decided not to deploy the Peshmarga against the Turkish troops. "I wanted the Peshmargas to confront the Turkish troops," said Faris. "Why do we have all of those fighters if not [to fight] for something like that?" He said the KRG "was powerless. They were trying to remain neutral".

Jabar Yawar, acting minister of the Peshmarga ministry in Sulaimaniyah, insisted that the Kurdish leadership has done its best to end Turkey's military operations on Iraq soil. "We have condemned the incidents and told the entire world about them to put pressure on Turkey," he said. "President [Massoud Barzani] has sent letters to President Bush, the United Nations and presidents in the European Union asking them to pressure Turkey to stop military actions." Yawar said the KRG had also asked Baghdad to compensate displaced families and for the ministry of foreign affairs to pressure Turkey to stop shelling the Iraqi Kurdistan border region.

While fighting in the Qandil mountain range is less intense than it was earlier this year, frequent Turkish and Iranian shelling makes it hard for families to return to their homes. Yawar said the KRG was trying to hold talks with Turkey to solve the problems peacefully. The KRG has also warned the PKK not to use Qandil as a base for launching attacks against Turkey.

Sozdar Avesta, a PKK leader, said her party is open to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. She said that PKK demands include Turkey granting the rebels a general amnesty and addressing the group's grievances regarding Kurdish rights in the country. However, no PKK-Turkish negotiations appear to be on the horizon.

"We have taken up weapons only to defend ourselves," said Avesta. "If they attack us again, we are ready to defend ourselves."


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