Iraqi villagers say rebels Iran seeks are near

Kurd villager Mohammed Ahmed Aziz.
Kurd villager Mohammed Ahmed Aziz. Jay Price / MCT

KOZENA, Iraq — Mohammed Ahmed Aziz and the other Kurdish villagers are in the heart of one of the world's oddest diplomatic tangles.

The parties including five countries, a semi-autonomous region that acts like a country, at least two groups of Kurdish fighters branded as terrorists and two ongoing border skirmishes.

Most of that doesn't interest Aziz and his extended family of 18. They have more pressing problems: Last week, an Iranian rocket hit the mountaintop above their mud-and-twig-roofed house, scorching a shopping center-sized patch of the crown.

"We decided at that moment to move," he said. "But then the shooting stopped again, so I don't know what we will do."

For more than a month, Iran has been raining down mortar rounds on villages in the border area, complaining that they've become a refuge for Kurdish rebels operating in Iran from the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PEJAK).

The group is a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which for years has been blamed for terrorist attacks in Turkey in its quest for a Kurdish homeland.

The PKK is on the State Department's list of international terrorist organizations, but in this part of Iraq — where Kurds have established an autonomous regional government — the PKK and PEJAK are tolerated.

The man who's essentially the defense minister for Iraq's Kurdistan regional government said in an interview that Kurdish leaders had no interest in sending the region's crack militia, the peshmerga, after the PKK or PEJAK. The peshmerga's name translates as "those who face death."

"We don't believe in fighting them," said Jafar Mustafa Ali, the minister of state for peshmerga affairs. "We are trying to prevent a fight against anyone. If we find them in our territory, we would make them leave."

He said that if Iran and Turkey wanted to fight the groups, they should do so within their own borders.

"If you fight them, they will just get stronger, because they have something to believe in," he said.

Kurds are spread across Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

None of those nations wants to give up territory to create a country called Kurdistan, though the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq has been operating almost as if it were a nation for more than a decade.

Turkey and Iran have accused the Iraqi Kurds of protecting the Kurdish rebel groups. Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, has demanded that the U.S., which has only a small military presence in northern Iraq, do something to stop the PKK.

Iran accuses the United States of supporting PEJAK, and the issue seems destined to get tangled up in the U.S.-Iranian rivalry in Iraq, where the American military seized an Iranian member of a trade delegation last week in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah.

The U.S. said the man had smuggled sophisticated, armor-piercing roadside bombs into Iraq, but the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, demanded the Iranian's release, saying he was in Iraq by invitation. On Thursday, Iran closed at least four border crossings into northern Iraq in protest.

Last week, at the final peshmerga checkpoint before the villages and the Iranian border, the commander confirmed that PEJAK and PKK fighters are operating in Kurdish Iraq. Four times he warned a group of journalists that the groups' fighters were in the mountains just beyond the post and that he couldn't help if they went farther and something went wrong.

The shelling, which started Aug. 16, has assumed a pattern. It starts every two or three days and stops, then starts again, said Ali, the peshmerga minister.

No one's been killed so far, but two women have been wounded, and Aziz said the occupants of eight villages had been forced from their homes.

"We're trying hard to prevent the use of additional force," Ali said. "We'll try to find a diplomatic way.

"War would be the last choice, because every single battle is not to anyone's benefit."

For the villagers, it's hell now.

The first rounds Aug. 16 fell near Kozena, where Aziz lives. Then the Iranians began targeting other villages.

Aziz agrees that there are PEJAK fighters in the area, but said the shelling was hurting only the village families that weren't involved. One remote village among the group that's closest to Iran, tiny Zerkam, has nearly been destroyed.

"Every day, it seems like, they get hit two times, maybe three times," Aziz said.

Zerkam's residents, like most of those from the seven other villages, have moved out of their homes to live alongside their cattle under the stunted trees that dot the mountainsides. Among them are more than a dozen of Aziz's relatives, he said.

"They are scattered all over these mountains now," he said.

Kozena is farther from the border, and somewhat safer, but Aziz isn't sure it's safe enough.

Every time he hears mortar fire, he wonders whether it's time to leave, after spending all 53 years of his life among these mountains.

"If it gets worse, we will have to go," he said. "Where, I'm not sure yet, but we don't want to die."

(Price reports for The (Raleigh) News & Observer. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Yasseen Taha contributed to this story.)