Kurdish rebels still control Iraqi mountain redoubts

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 21, 2008 

Sozdar Avesta, a leading member of the PKK, says they are fighting for Kurdish freedom and are not terrorists.

LEILA FADEL / MCT

ZAR GALY, Iraq — In the snowcapped Qandeel Mountains of northern Iraq, it's hard to see that the Kurdistan Workers Party — the PKK, as it's known by its Kurdish initials — has been on the U.S. terrorist list since 2002.

Or that President Bush and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government promised Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that they'd crack down on the group, which has killed hundreds of Turks in its battle for an independent Kurdish homeland.

No Iraqi troops patrol here. PKK men in uniform check the IDs of those who seek to visit. The image of the PKK's leader is emblazoned on a mountain slope, and a sign openly proclaims PKK headquarters. The peshmerga troops of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which officially rules northern Iraq, make no effort to enter.

Indeed, there's little evidence in this tiny village inside what the PKK calls the Medya Defense Area that the Kurdish Regional Government has made any effort to cut off the group's supply lines. The regional government paves the roads and buses in teachers from nearby towns. Residents openly watch PKK television, with the sound up loud.

The only people who seem to be challenged as they come and go are journalists, whose entry into PKK territory is forbidden. But once inside, after sneaking past the last Kurdish Regional Government checkpoint with a PKK-affiliated escort, one finds PKK officials openly proud of what they've built. The escort called the area the safest place in Iraq.

"A person can leave gold in the street and come back hours later and it will still be there," he said. He pulled to the side of the road to admire the blanket of snow and the serene Kurdish villages embedded in the mountainsides. Two PKK guerrillas trudged past, weapons slung on their backs. Helicopters buzzed in the air.

The PKK has been battling Turkey for decades to establish an independent Kurdistan that would include part of southern Turkey, and these mountains have been its refuge for 26 years. Last year, the Turkish parliament authorized its military to cross into Iraq after PKK raiders killed a dozen Turkish soldiers and bombed a bus loaded with civilians.

To head off an open invasion, Bush promised to help. The Iraqi government ordered a crackdown on PKK offices in northern Iraq, and the Kurdish Regional Government said that it would move against the group's redoubts.

But there's no sign of that, and PKK officials say they're offended by Bush's characterization of them as an "enemy of Iraq."

"The president of the United States is saying that the PKK is the enemy," said a PKK leader, Sozdar Avesta. "But the fact is that until now, in the history of the Kurdish people and Kurdistan, it is the United States of America, Turkey and the former regime in Iraq who were the enemy of the Kurdish people."

Avesta said that the United States did nothing to stop Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from gassing Kurdish villages in the 1980s, and charged that Turkey has used cease-fires to crack down on PKK sympathizers and arrest the group's leaders.

"On one side there are unilateral cease-fires in order to solve the Kurdish question through dialogue and peace and democracy," she said. "On the other hand, there are international forces and regional forces who don't want to solve the Kurdish question. The same forces have played many games in order to stop the solution to the Kurdish question peacefully. So the reality is they are the ones who are the enemy of the Kurds."

Avesta, who was dressed in military green, wore her hair short and kept her rifle propped against a nearby wall, said the United States and Turkey had ignored the PKK's promise Nov. 30 to lay down its arms if Turkey would move to stop discrimination against Kurds, allow the use of the Kurdish language in schools and government and create an autonomous Kurdish region in Turkey.

She's angry that the United States has divided Kurds, as she put it, between the "good Kurd," willing to live with few rights in line with U.S. policy, and the "bad Kurd," who demands an independent state.

"The Americans help Turkey with intelligence against us," she said. "Despite all our efforts in order to solve the Kurdish question through dialogue, we find that the United States of America does not know any thing about us, because the United State of America wants to get to know us only through the eyes of our enemy."

She's especially bitter about the powerful Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party, who've called for the PKK to lay down its arms. They, too, once used these mountains for shelter, she said.

"It's like a mother and her children, but the children are not loyal to the mother," she said.

U.S. officials declined to discuss the PKK in detail. In an e-mailed statement, the military said, "The PKK is a terrorist organization that uses murder as a weapon to achieve political goals." It added that sharing intelligence is the only way to get rid of the PKK.

Avesta scoffed at the idea that PKK members are terrorists.

"If wanting peace means you're a terrorist, I have nothing to say," she said. "If wanting to speak your mother tongue, if wanting freedom for your ethnic group to organize freely, if those things are terrorism, I have nothing to say. If wanting your natural rights makes you a terrorist, I have nothing to say."

She promised never to surrender.

"There are 40 million Kurds in Turkey under oppression," she said. "Throughout history there have been 29 Kurdish revolutions against that government. Our movement is the 30th revolution against them. If they defeat us, there will be a 31st."

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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