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Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Kurds are being driven out again - this time by Iran

A SECRET war is being waged in Iraqi Kurdistan’s isolated Kandil mountain range. Since April Iran has been bombing the area in an attempt to expel Kurdish separatists, who have turned the rugged terrain into their own mini-state.

An estimated 400 families have fled the mountains to escape the Iranian attacks. No let-up appears in sight as fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) refuse to abandon their enclave.

Murat Karayilan, the PKK’s bristly, grey-haired number two commander believes the campaign is an attempt by the Islamic republic to curry favour with Turkey, the PKK’s sworn enemy.

“The Turkish and Iranian forces have made an alliance to attack us,” Mr Karayilan told The Times inside his group’s enclave. “Iran is attacking us to make friends with Turkey and to send a message to the United States.”

In turn, Mr Karayilan claims the PKK’s sister group, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJK), a grouping of Iranian Kurdish separatists, has carried out reprisals in Iran. Since May the PJK has killed 94 Iranian soldiers, the PKK claims.

“You may ask why does Iran attack us. It is because of the larger issues of the Middle East,” said Mr Karayilan.

This week the Royal Institute of Strategic Affairs, a UK think-tank, gave warning that Iran had become the most influential country in the Middle East, three years after the US-led invasion of Iraq.

The Iranian campaign in Kandil has coincided with renewed Turkish artillery strikes against PKK camps along the Iraq-Turkey border. The attacks are seen as a way to pressure Iraqi Kurdistan and are also revealing of Turkey and Iran’s skittish nature when it comes to their own restive Kurdish populations.

Mr Karayilan believes that Turkey is using the PKK as a pretext to intimidate Iraq’s Kurdish regional government about the future of the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds want to annex despite Turkey’s adamant opposition. Kirkuk boasts large Arab and Turkmen populations.

The PKK fought Turkish security forces for much of the 1980s and 1990s. Their guerilla war in Turkey cost more than 30,000 lives, but the PKK declared a ceasefire in 1999 after the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, its leader.

They returned to armed struggle in 2004 in anger over Ankara’s failure to engage them.

Flanked by his Kalashnikov-toting women and men, Mr Karayilan is confident no one will be able to force his men out of the Kandil mountain range on the triangle border of Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

Mr Karayilan and his troops, clad in their olive soldier uniforms, cruise the serpentine mountain roads in Nissan Patrols. PKK soldiers man checkpoints and sentry posts from hilltop to hilltop. Their green flags adorn mountainsides. At the entrance to their enclave, concrete blocks mark the road and a giant poster of Ocalan stares down from a slope.

Iraq’s Kurdish regional government professes helplessness about the situation with the PKK and Iran.

“Kandil is a very difficult terrain. Because of the geographical terrain in Kandil, no one in the Kurdish Government, the Iraqi government . . . has been able to control this place,” said Othman Haji Mahmoud, interior minister for Sulaimaniyah.

“We hope the PKK leaves Kandil. We remind the Iranian Government to stop its shelling.”

Meanwhile, the refugee population continues to grow. Along stream beds south of the Kandil mountains, villagers have staked up tents.

On August 18 Rasul Hama Ahmed fled his village of Karosh when Iranian shells rained down from the sky. Everyone ran to hide in caves, ditches and behind trees. One shepherd was killed in their village three hours by foot from the Iranian border. Twenty-five homes were destroyed. “The shells fell like stones from the sky,” he said and hoisted up his leg to show a knick from shrapnel.

It was the second time his village had been struck since April and Ahmed said he was not taking any more chances. He estimated that 4,000 people had been uprooted since the start of the Iranian offensive.

Ahmed complained the women and children were getting sick from the stream’s water. He said the village had still not decided whether to return home.

Looking at his ramshackle makeshift camp of four tents, Ahmed added: “I want freedom, not to be a prisoner of bombing and fighting.”


- The PKK founded by Abdullah Ocalan in 1974

- Began fight for a separate homeland in Kurdish areas straddling Turkey’s borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria in 1984

- The EU and US class the PKK as a terrorist group. Its armed struggle included bombings, kidnappings and assassinations which cost more than 30,000 lives

- In 1999 Ocalan was captured by Turkey. He urged the PKK to continue the struggle politically and it announced a ceasefire

- Ceasefire ended 2004 and the PKK is accused of bombings in tourist areas in Turkey

- Turkey claims that it earns $40 million annually from drug trafficking

The Times
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