BAGHDAD — Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari demanded Thursday that Iran stop firing artillery and mortars at Kurdish villages in northern Iraq and warned that more attacks could damage relations between the countries.
"We're not that weak that everyone can meddle and bomb us and we will keep quiet," said Zebari, who's a Kurd.
The demand was a rare public reference to a burgeoning border conflict in northern Iraq that has nothing to do with Iraq's sectarian warfare or U.S. allegations that Iran providing weapons and training to Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq.
For the past two weeks, Iran has been shelling Kurdish farming villages on the Iraqi side of the border to root out rebels who belong to the Kurdistan Free Life Party, which Tehran accuses of conducting terrorist attacks in Iran. It's a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which the United States has branded a terrorist organization.
Last week, Iranian troops raided at least 10 villages on the Iraqi side of the border in search of rebels, possibly in retaliation for the recent assassination of an Iranian intelligence official by Kurdish guerrillas. Since then at least 20 villages have been evacuated in the face of Iranian bombardment.
Zebari said the Foreign Ministry had sent a note to Iran's ambassador to Iraq to protest. "We expressed our full readiness to talk about this," he said.
U.S. officials didn't respond to requests for comment.
Kurds have almost total autonomy in northern Iraq, where U.S. troops protected the ethnic group from Saddam Hussein after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. They were among the first to rally to the U.S. cause when American-led troops invaded Iraq in 2003.
Iran, Turkey and Syria — each with large Kurdish populations — have expressed concern that Iraqi Kurdistan would become a haven for Kurdish separatists who seek to incorporate Kurdish areas of those countries into an independent state.
Turkey also has launched raids into northern Iraq to hunt for rebels.
The current Iranian campaign began Aug. 14 when Iranian artillery fired into the Khnayra region along the Iranian and Turkish borders, about 100 miles north of the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah. Artillery also struck in the plains of the Soureen mountains, about 68 miles east of Sulaimaniyah, and the villages of Peshdar, north of Sulaimaniyah, and Choman, east of Irbil, according to Jabar al Yaour, a spokesman for the Kurdish peshmerga militia.
The bombardment devastated farms and forced the residents of 20 villages to flee, said Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government.
Iranians also have fired mortar rounds across the border, more than 1,000 of which have struck the Peshdar region in the past two weeks, according to Hussein Ahmed, the mayor of the region. The rounds set fire to farms and orchards, killed livestock and injured two women, he said.
Mahmoud Saleem, 28, fled his village of Gandool, north of Sulaimaniyah, to take refuge in that city. He left behind his farm, and worries that he'll lose his livelihood.
"I was watering my orchard when the bombardment started on a hill nearby," he said. "My uncle's wife was hurt by shrapnel."
Haj Ali Rishinin, a resident of Wola Simt, east of Sulaimaniyah, said he'd watched orchards burn after the attacks. He and other men from the area have taken refuge in Sulaimaniyah, and take turns returning to their village to check on their crops.
"We are poor people and we are farmers," he said. "We have nothing to do with any kinds of conflict . . . if the bombings continue, our fate and livelihood will be in danger."
(Taha, a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent, reported from Sulaimaniyah.)