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Monday, February 26, 2007

Kurdish strike reminder of forgotten war

Iranian forces reportedly clash with an Iranian offshoot of the Kurdish militant PKK in northern Iraq, and Turkey may be planning a spring offensive that promises to further escalate the conflict.

Commentary by Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch (26/02/07)

As attention focuses on the joint Iraqi-US security operation in Baghdad, a cross-border militant strike on Saturday has served as a timely warning that the failure to settle a low-scale Kurdish insurgency could yet unravel the significant progress made in ensuring stability in northern Iraq.

The state-run IRNA news agency reported on Saturday that Iranian Revolutionary Guards units had engaged Kurdish militants in the country's West Azarbaijan province, as the insurgents apparently sought to flee to the safety of the Iraqi border 17 kilometers away.

According to IRNA, "The Revolutionary Guards besieged these elements and started neutralizing them. In this operation at least 17 mercenary anti-revolution elements were killed and some were injured."

Kurdish news agency Firat carried a report the same day that militants from the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK/PEJAK) were claiming to have shot down an Iranian military helicopter in the area with a shoulder-launched missile, killing eight soldiers and capturing one.

Iran's semi-official Fars news agency confirmed that a helicopter had gone down in the region on Saturday, saying that one of the pilots had been "martyred" in the crash, which it claimed was caused by bad weather.

In December, Iranian officials reported the capture of 87 members and supporters of "terrorist groups" in West Azarbaijan, saying that security forces had killed nine militants in recent months.

PJAK is an Iranian offshoot of the larger Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), which launched an insurgency against Turkey in 1984. PJAK claims to have several thousand men and women under arms, but visitors to the group's Qandil Mountains stronghold in northeast Iraq say that PJAK bases shelter around 1,000 fighters.

The movement is focused on replacing Iran's theocratic government with a liberal-democratic model that recognizes minority rights.

Iran retaliated to PJAK attacks last May by shelling Kurdish villages in northern Iraq.

The New Yorker's Seymour Hersch alleged in a November 2006 article that PJAK was receiving support from the US and Israel, including equipment, training and targeting information. In an earlier interview, a spokesperson for the group, Ihsan Warya, denied any direct links, adding he was "disappointed that Washington hasn't made contact."

Iran recognizes the Kurds as an official minority and allows the free use of the Kurdish language.

Turkey has instituted limited civil reforms since the withdrawal of most PKK forces to Iraq in 1999, including allowing television and radio broadcasts in the Kurdish language.

The PKK has set up a tiny quasi-state in the far north of Iraq, establishing public utilities and services that include health and dental clinics.

The group says it has given up on its demand for an independent Kurdistan and has moved away from its Marxist roots. It has focused instead on protecting its mountain stronghold from regular Turkish assaults while demanding full protection for minority cultural rights and the Kurdish language in the Turkish constitution.

In a worrying development, the PKK announced last June that it was ending its second unilateral ceasefire since the group's founder Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999 due to the alleged failure of Turkey to reciprocate. The group has vowed to target Turkish tourist and financial centers.

More than 30,000 people died in the PKK-led insurgency in Turkey from 1984-1999, with human rights groups reporting widespread atrocities on both sides.

The US has appeared to give its tacit support to Turkish incursions into northern Iraq, but may look to prevent an all out assault as the PKK and PJAK are maintaining military pressure on Iranian forces.

Iran has repeatedly accused Britain and the US of fomenting ethnic discontent within its borders and of aiding armed insurgents who have launched attacks in the country's north and southwest and along the Pakistani border in recent weeks.

Any large-scale Turkish military assault would threaten relations with the US-allied Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), whose peshmerga forces have maintained an island of calm in northern Iraq since 1991. The KRG looks set to hold sway over lucrative oil contracts under a new national plan for the division of fossil fuel assets.

The growing independence of the KRG within the nascent Iraqi federal structure has raised concerns in Syria, Iran and Turkey of a new wave of agitation for Kurdish autonomy, if not independence.

The KRG's ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) parties have sought to placate these fears by insisting that their demands and concerns are now confined to Iraq.

The PKK has expressed an interest in dialogue and constitutional politics but has been ignored by Turkey, the EU and the US. Given the diminished size of the insurgency, the opportunity appears to exist for a negotiated end to the Kurdish independence struggle that would see the PKK and PJAK and related organizations dissolved or incorporated within the KRG and Turkish political systems in return for minor Turkish constitutional emendations.

Emboldened by its successes against the PKK insurgency in the late 1990s, Turkey is rumored to be preparing a spring offensive that promises to extend the conflict and further destabilize northern Iraq.
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