In the Rugged North of Iraq, Kurdish Rebels Flout Turkey
By SABRINA TAVERNISE | October 29, 2007
RANIYA, Iraq, Oct. 27 — A low-slung concrete building off a steep mountain road marks the beginning of rebel territory in this remote corner of northern Iraq. The fighters based here, Kurdish militants fighting Turkey, fly their own flag, and despite urgent international calls to curb them, they operate freely, receiving supplies in beat-up pickup trucks less than 10 miles from a government checkpoint.
“Our condition is good,” said one fighter, putting a heaping spoonful of sugar into his steaming tea. “How about yours?” A giant face of the rebels’ leader — Abdullah Ocalan, now in a Turkish prison — has been painted on a nearby slope.
The rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., is at the center of a crisis between Turkey and Iraq that began when the group’s fighters killed 12 Turkish soldiers on Oct. 21, prompting Turkey, a NATO member, to threaten an invasion.
But the P.K.K. continues to operate casually here, in full view of Iraqi authorities. The P.K.K.’s impunity is rooted in the complex web of relationships and ambitions that began with the American-led invasion of Iraq more than four years ago, and has frustrated others with an interest in resolving the crisis — the Turks, Iraqis and the Bush administration.
The United States responded to the P.K.K. raid by putting intense pressure on Iraq’s Kurdish leaders who control the northern area where the rebels hide, with a senior State Department official delivering a rare rebuke last week over their “lack of action” in curbing the P.K.K.
But even with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scheduled to visit Istanbul this week, Kurdish political leaders seemed in no hurry to act.
An all-out battle is out of the question, they argue, because the rugged terrain makes it impossible to dislodge them.
“Closing the camps means war and fighting,” said Azad Jindyany, a senior Kurdish official in Sulaimaniya, a regional capital. “We don’t have the army to do that. We did it in the past, and we failed.”
But even logistical flows remain uninterrupted, despite the fact that Iraqi Kurdish leaders have some of the most precise and extensive intelligence networks in the country. As the war has worsened, the United States has come to depend increasingly on the Kurds as partners in running Iraq and as overseers of the one part of the country where some of their original aspirations are actually being met.
Iraqi Kurdish officials, for their part, appear to be politely ignoring American calls for action, saying the only serious solution is political, not military. They have taken their own path, allowing the guerrillas to exist on their territory, while at the same time quietly trying to persuade them to stop attacks.
“They have allowed the P.K.K. to be up there,” said Mark Parris, a former American ambassador to Turkey who is now at the Brookings Institution. “That couldn’t have happened without their permitting them to be there. That’s their turf. It’s as simple as that.”
The situation poses a puzzle to the United States, which badly wants to avert a new front in the war, but finds itself forced to choose between two trusted allies — Turkey, a NATO member whose territory is the transit area for most of its air cargo to Iraq, and the Kurds, their closest partners in Iraq.
The United States “is like a man with two wives,” said one Iraqi Kurd in Sulaimaniya. “They quarrel, but he doesn’t want to lose either of them.”
Kurds are one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a state, numbering more than 25 million, spread across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
Most live in Turkey, which has curtailed their rights, fearing secession. The P.K.K. wants an autonomous Kurdish area in eastern Turkey, and has repeatedly attacked the Turkish military, and sometimes the civilian population, since the 1980s, in a conflict that has left more than 30,000 dead.
In this small town a short drive from the edge of rebel territory, and in Sulaimaniya, 55 miles to the south, it is business as usual. A political party affiliated with the rebel group is open and holding meetings. Pickup trucks zip in and out of the group’s territory, and a government checkpoint a short drive away from the area acts as a friendly tour guide. Its soldiers said they had waved through eight cars of journalists on one day last week.
Mala Bakhtyar, a senior member in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that governs this northeastern region, said there had been no explicit orders from Baghdad to limit the P.K.K., and scoffed at last week’s statement by the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, that Iraq would close the P.K.K.’s offices, saying they had already been shut long ago.
“They are guests, but they are making their living by themselves,” Mr. Bakhtyar said. “We don’t support them.”
He added: “We don’t agree with them. We don’t like to make a fight with Turkey.”
Fayeq Mohamed Goppy, a leader in the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party, an offshoot of the P.K.K. that still operates freely, argues that Iraqi Kurdish leaders are only paying lip service to wanting the P.K.K. to leave. In reality, the politicians want the separatists around as protection against Sunni Arab extremists, who most Iraqi Kurds believe will move in if the P.K.K. leaves the mountains.
Noshirwan Mustafa, a prominent Kurdish leader, said the area was as impenetrable as the mountains in Pakistan where leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are thought to be hiding. “For me, the P.K.K. is better than the Taliban,” he said.
Local Kurdish authorities have asked Mr. Goppy to keep a low profile, including canceling a planned conference in Erbil, he said, but otherwise have not limited his activities.
“They really don’t want P.K.K. to go,” he said in an interview in his home in Sulaimaniya. If the group is eliminated, the Iraqi Kurdish area “is a really small piece for eating, very easy to swallow.”
Mr. Parris argues that the Kurdish leader of northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani, ever astute, is holding onto the P.K.K. as a future bargaining chip with Turkey, and will not use it until he absolutely has to.
“The single most important piece of negotiating capital may very well be his ability to take care of the P.K.K.,” he said.
Mr. Jindyany said local authorities would be happy to get rid of them if they could, calling the situation a sword of Damocles for Iraqi Kurds.
Throughout its history in northern Iraq, which dates back to the early 1980s, under an agreement with Mr. Barzani, the P.K.K. has had contentious relations with Iraqi Kurdish leaders. It fought in their civil wars, against Mr. Barzani in 1997, and three years later, against Jalal Talabani, a powerful Kurd who is now the president of Iraq.
But since the American invasion in 2003, the political landscape has changed. Iraqi Kurds, emboldened by their secure position, have stopped fighting each other and turned their attentions to other threats like Turkey, a state that has long oppressed its Kurdish population, and Islamic extremism from Baghdad.
This area of northern Iraq, which Iraqis call Kurdistan, in some ways eclipsed the P.K.K.’s struggle for an autonomous Kurdish area, Iraqi Kurds said.
“They were jealous of our autonomy,” said Goran Kader, a Communist Party leader in Sulaimaniya. “They wanted to do the same thing in Turkey.”
At the same time, the P.K.K. was reorganizing, after its leader, Mr. Ocalan, was captured in 1999, and a skilled group of military commanders took over day-to-day operations, said Aliza Marcus, the author of “Blood and Belief: The P.K.K. and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.”
The commanders were intent on military escalation, she said, and stepped up attacks, under Mr. Ocalan’s jailhouse orders, in part to remain relevant.
“They don’t want to be sidelined,” Ms. Marcus said. “That’s really what’s driven them since 2004,” when attacks resumed after a five-year cease-fire. “They want to say, ‘Turkish Kurds are important too — don’t think the Kurdish problem has been solved.’ ”
The ambush of Turkish soldiers on Oct. 21, which took place just a few miles from the Iraqi border, served the purpose perfectly.
Public sympathy in Raniya and Sulaimaniya is enormous, and the fighters procure supplies and health care here with ease. Fighters do not go to hospitals, for fear of standing out — the ones from Turkey speak a different Kurdish dialect — but are treated in doctors’ homes, said one former fighter, an Iraqi Kurd who was recruited at age 14.
“Their organization is everywhere,” said the fighter, who now works as a police officer for the main political party, after surrendering to local authorities in 2003. “Their members are everywhere.”
To Iraqi Kurds, Turkey’s approach is pure politics. There is no military solution to the problem of the P.K.K., they say, because the terrain would never permit victory, and Turkey’s leaders know that.
The solution, Mr. Mustafa argued, lies with moderates in Turkey, who must push for an amnesty for the rebels. Militant Kurds, for their part, should take advantage of the political opening in Turkey — 20 Kurdish deputies are now serving in Parliament there.
“When you have the door to the Parliament open, why are you going to the caves?” he said.
To that aim, talks were held with intermediaries for the P.K.K., Mr. Bakhtyar said. Since then, the rebels have not attacked, and officials and security analysts say that if the quiet holds until Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meets with Ms. Rice on Friday and with President Bush three days later, he might not be pressured into military action.
“Soon there will be snow,” Mr. Kader said. “The roads will be blocked. That will be that until next year.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed reporting from New York.