QANDIL MOUNTAINS, Iraq — A noose is tightening around the group that calls itself the last armed resistance to Iran's Islamic republic, but the Kalashnikov-carrying guerrillas are refusing to lay down their weapons and leave their camouflaged outposts in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.
Washington has frozen the assets of the Kurdistan Free Life Party, or PJAK, an anti-Iranian militia that at one point had an informal intelligence-sharing relationship with the American military, and Iraq has shut down its political activities. Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government also is pushing the group to disarm.
Iran is cooperating with Iraq and Turkey in curbing the group, but continues to launch missile strikes at PJAK-controlled territory inside Iraq. One assault struck inside Iraq on Aug. 23, an Iraqi Kurdish military commander said.
PJAK is "killing people in Iran and hiding in our country," said Sami al Askari, a close adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. "The government wishes to disarm this group by peaceful efforts, but if we are obliged to use force, we will use it."
PJAK's isolation is beginning to resemble that of the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, another anti-Iranian group that shared intelligence with the U.S. and had a refuge in Iraq until this year, when the Iraqi government moved to take down its camps. Unlike the MEK, however, PJAK intends to stick to its guns.
Interviewed in their camps in the Qandil Mountains, a historic retreat for Kurdish independence movements since the 1960s, PJAK leaders are defiant.
"Sometimes we've been asked to disarm, but we don't take those requests into consideration," said Agir Shaho, 31, a PJAK commander and member of the organization's seven-person board of coordinators, flanked by armed guards. "If we do what they're asking, we won't have freedom."
The group says it's killed hundreds of Iranian police and soldiers since 2004 in raids on their outposts. Inside Iraq, Shaho and several hundred PJAK fighters find cover in stone houses topped with plastic tarps and disguised with dead tree branches. They move across the border on foot, and grow their own food in irrigated gardens.
PJAK is an offshoot of the larger and better-funded Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has fought in Turkey — often finding sanctuary in northern Iraq — since the 1980s in clashes that have killed tens of thousands of people. They share the objective of establishing Kurdish autonomy in a region that covers parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
The PKK focuses on Turkey and PJAK on Iran. Short of independence, the militias want recognition, minority rights and more self-government for Kurds.
PJAK's redoubt is about 150 miles northwest of the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. To reach it, a visitor must drive past three Kurdish government checkpoints and one controlled by PJAK's sister party, the PKK. Young militia members inspect identification cards and report visitors by radio to officers deeper in the mountains. Well-paved roads maintained by the PKK give way to riveted dirt trails that lead to PJAK's bases, several hours by car from the last PKK checkpoint.
Snow blankets their terrain in winter months. In the summer, tall golden grass covers the peaks. Dirt roads skirt about 10 villages where satellite dishes poke out from ramshackle roofs.
A giant portrait of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned in Turkey, covers a hillside. PKK members, half of them women, till farmland along the way to the Iranian border.
The two militias wear similar uniforms — green jackets with matching loose-fitting pants, tied with a sash at the waist. They've also created a lush rose garden and cemetery in the mountains where they honor dozens of their "martyrs" — men and women who were killed in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
PJAK and the PKK have been largely quiet this summer, a change from the past few years when PJAK attacks in Iran and PKK assaults in Turkey led Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad to collaborate on border threats. PJAK members say their territory has been bombed by Turkish jets and shelled by Iranian artillery. The two countries have cooperated against the PKK and PJAK since late 2006.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran will confront strongly any terrorist phenomena," said Hassan Kazimi Qummi, the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, in a written response to questions from McClatchy. "There is cooperation between (Iraq and Iran) and the region concerning efforts to secure the borders."
Tehran occasionally blames the U.S. for funding PJAK, as it did in state media reports about strikes against PJAK outposts in Iran in late August. Qummi wouldn't make that link, except in an indirect suggestion that the U.S. had supported PJAK in the past, when McClatchy asked him about the group.
Former PJAK and former U.S. officials said the U.S. had hoped to develop a relationship with the militia, but the guerrilla assaults by the PKK in Turkey provoked a crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations, and the Bush administration opted to back its ally Turkey.
The U.S. sent low-level military delegations to meet with PJAK early in the Iraq war, around 2004, to gather intelligence about Iran, said Osman Ocalan, a PJAK founder and brother of PKK leader Abudllah Ocalan who defected from both groups.
A former top U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the contacts remain classified, confirmed Ocalan's assertions.
Ocalan said the U.S. and PJAK discreetly exchanged information for a time, but he characterized the relationship as "weak." Another current senior leader in the PKK, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his safety, said that Washington continues to have a liaison with PJAK. He refused to elaborate.
"America wanted to get involved with PJAK to annoy Iran, and use PJAK as a winning card in the conflict between Iran and America," said Osman Ocalan, who now lives in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya. "PJAK has activities inside Iran, and also they have followers, and that was very seductive for the American side."
Shaho, the guerrilla commander, and Ocalan, the defector, each said that the Obama administration's February move to freeze PJAK's assets and condemn its attacks would have little direct impact on the group.
PJAK's leader, Abdul Rahman Haji Ahmadi, lives in Germany, and the organization's assets are thought to be in Europe or gathered from Kurds living in Iran.
PJAK "absolutely does not put its money in the American banks, and that decision and announcement is not real," Ocalan said.
Shaho denied that the American government ever assisted PJAK in any way.
"If we really had support from America, we could do much more. If we had help, we wouldn't stay here," said Shaho, sitting in a hardscrabble village a few miles from the Iranian border.
The PKK and PJAK could become more aggressive this month. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is expected to issue new orders for his organization within weeks, which could include lifting what has been a de facto cease-fire while peace talks progressed between the PKK, Ankara and Baghdad, said Roj Welat, a spokesman for an umbrella organization to which PJAK and the PKK belong.
Shaho said his organization had scaled back its offensive operations to give space for Iran's June elections and July votes for Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government.
The lull, however, shows signs of snapping before the militias plan to resume their offensive. Iran on Aug. 23 announced that it had killed 26 PJAK members in northwest Iran. It fired a missile strike inside PJAK turf in Iraq in late July, as well.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders have constricted PJAK's political activity, but are unlikely to use military force to dislodge the group because many Kurds are at least sympathetic to PJAK's cause. Still, the Iraqi Kurdish government blames PJAK for Iran's cross-border attacks, not Tehran.
"We do not want to be caught in the middle of these fires," said Falah Mustafa Bakir, the foreign minister for the Kurdish Regional Government, which has banned PJAK the PKK from opening political offices in its provinces. "So long as we have these armed groups, we won't have a peaceful and secure future."
Shaho, the guerilla leader, views the coordination against his group as Baghdad's Arab-led government bowing to Iran. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and many leaders from his Dawa Party sought exile in Iran for years before Saddam Hussein's fall.
"Everyone knows that the Iranian and Iraqi governments are connected," said Shaho. "Those who like Maliki should like Iran, because their governments are tied."
(Ashton reports for the Modesto Bee. McClatchy special correspondent Yaseen Taha contributed to this article from Sulaimaniya, Iraq.)
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