Wall Street Journal
October 2, 2006
Pg. 1

Destabilizing Force

In Northern Iraq, A Rebel Sanctuary Bedevils The U.S.

In Wake of Kurdish Attacks Against Turkey, Washington Is Caught Between Allies; 'Our State in the Mountains'

By Philip Shishkin

QANDIL MOUNTAIN RANGE, Iraq -- Kurdish guerrillas have used the remote mountains of northern Iraq as a base to attack Turkey for years. Now their presence has become a thorny problem for Washington.

Thousands of Kurdish fighters move openly in dozens of camps spread throughout Qandil's scrubby mountainsides and tree-covered ravines. A day's hike to the north lies Turkey, where most of these militants were born and where they face terrorism charges for fighting for Kurdish autonomy. Here in northern Iraq, with grenades clipped to the belts of their matching olive-green outfits, the guerrillas conduct combat drills, restock arms or watch satellite television. A few months ago they honored their leader by painting his image on a giant concrete slab they poured onto a hillside. It is visible from miles away.

"We have our own state in the mountains," says Farman, the 42-year-old area commander whose neck bears the indented scar of a bullet wound. Like other militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, he introduced himself by first name only.

The guerrillas' enclave in northern Iraq is at the center of a growing diplomatic storm. As the U.S. begins to exert pressure on Iraq to rein in the anti-Turkey fighters, it finds itself caught between two key allies. On one side is Iraqi Kurdistan, which supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq and whose leaders have deep ties with the Kurdistan Workers' Party. On the other is Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a Muslim democracy, whose leaders say they are committed to destroying the PKK.

Stakes for Washington are high. Iraqi Kurdistan is the safest part of Iraq. Armed conflict between Turkey and Kurdish fighters would prove calamitous, adding another front to the bloody Iraqi battlefield and further stretching U.S. and Iraqi security forces. Turkey, which maintains tens of thousands of troops on its border with Iraq, said this summer it is drawing up plans to attack the guerrillas' positions.

For the first time since these fighters began using Iraq as a base more than two decades ago, Washington has appointed a high-level diplomat to address the crisis. In late August, it named retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston to the post of Special Envoy for Countering the PKK. Gen. Ralston, a former NATO top commander, took a whirlwind tour through Turkish and Iraqi capitals in September, pressing the U.S. point that Iraqi territory shouldn't be used as a PKK haven. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will raise the issue with President George W. Bush when the two meet in Washington today.

Gen. Ralston's tour comes after a summer of heightened violence. In one week in July, PKK militants killed at least 15 Turkish soldiers and police. A month later, explosions in three Turkish cities killed three Turkish citizens and injured 60 civilians, including foreign tourists. The attacks against civilians were claimed by Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, which Turkish and Western officials say operates under the auspices of the PKK.

On Saturday, the PKK promised to halt attacks, the fifth time the group has declared a cease-fire. However, the decades-old conflict remains far from defused. Past truces have led to lulls in violence, followed by intensified fighting. Turkey immediately dismissed the cease-fire. Violence in the Kurdish area of Turkey continued yesterday.

Marxism and Nationalism

The Kurds, who number about 25 million and speak their own language, have never had a country of their own. Most of them live in contiguous border stretches in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. The majority -- about 15 million -- live in Turkey, which has historically denied them minority rights such as cultural recognition or Kurdish-language education.

Since its birth in Turkey in 1974, the PKK, or Partiya KarkerÍn Kurdistan, has employed a violent blend of Marxism and nationalism. Its guerrillas consolidated support in the countryside, ruthlessly attacking Turks and Kurds alike who stood in the way of their goal of establishing an independent Kurdistan. The conflict with the Turkish military led to an estimated 30,000 deaths in the 1980s and the 1990s.

Pressured inside Turkey, the PKK found a haven in northern Iraq in the mid-1980s. Iraqi Kurdish leaders, fighting their own rebellion against Baghdad, allowed the PKK to enter northern Iraq in a gesture of pan-Kurdish solidarity. Iraqi Kurds were also among the region's strongest supporters of the U.S. decision to depose Saddam Hussein, who is currently on trial in Baghdad on charges of genocide against Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s.

In the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Turkey opposed, Iraqi Kurdistan has strengthened its autonomy. The home to five million Kurds, the Iraqi region has gradually accumulated the trappings of sovereignty from Baghdad's rule, serving as an inspirational example to Kurds across the border in Turkey and Iran.

In early September, Massoud Barzani, the region's president, outlawed the Iraqi national flag on the grounds that it symbolizes repression of Kurds under Mr. Hussein. Only Kurdish flags, marked with a bright yellow sun in the middle, now remain. The region's parliament just approved a petroleum law that stipulates that revenue from future oil production doesn't have to be shared with Baghdad. (Baghdad has criticized the region's drive to set its own oil policy.) Boundaries between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq are reinforced with trenches and patrolled by units of the regional government's own military force, the Peshmerga.

In addressing the guerrillas sheltering within their borders, Iraqi Kurdistan's officials find themselves with dual allegiances. While Washington classifies the Kurdistan Workers' Party as a terrorist group, Iraqi Kurd leaders view them as freedom fighters. Masrur Barzani, the head of Iraqi Kurdistan's intelligence branch and the son of the regional president, says Kurds "existed here long before" the Turkic tribes from Central Asia began their conquest of modern-day Turkey a millennium ago. Jafar Mustafa Ali, an Iraqi Kurd in charge of many of the Peshmerga units, suggests the PKK fighters are cut from the same nationalist cloth as Iraq's anti-Saddam Kurdish guerrillas. "The PKK asks for the rights of its people," he says. "Why should somebody be called a terrorist for that?"

At the same time, the region's administrators are eager to avoid the sort of violence afflicting the rest of Iraq. As northern Iraq looks to start pumping its own oil, it will require cooperation from Turkey and Iran to ship it to international clients. Already, bilateral trade between Turkey and northern Iraq has grown to an estimated $3 billion last year, according to Turkish and Iraqi officials. A peaceful resolution of the PKK issue will also help the area attract foreign investment.

According to Turkish and Western intelligence, some 3,000 guerrillas live in Iraq's Qandil mountains at any given time. A smaller force is based on the Turkish side of the border. Western and Turkish intelligence officials say guerrillas train and acquire weapons in Iraq. The camps also serve as rest-and-recuperation sites for rebels who have fought in Turkey, especially during harsh winters when skirmishes usually die down. The PKK says it runs a hidden hospital here that treats fighters wounded in clashes inside Turkey.

A typical guerrilla is Semad, a 29-year-old who grew up in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir and later moved with his family to Istanbul. Two of his older brothers died in the fighting with Turkish security forces, and Semad says he started helping the PKK at the age of nine, delivering messages, leaflets and food in the militant underground. He worked briefly as a postman in Istanbul. By the time he turned 18 he walked off into the mountains and joined the fighters, taking the name of one of his dead brothers as a nom-de-guerre.

Life for Semad in the Qandil camps follows a well-established routine: political education in the morning, military training in the afternoon, then soccer, volleyball or ping-pong. The guerrillas watch satellite television, particularly Roj TV, a Denmark-based channel sympathetic to PKK's cause.

Devotion to the group's Marxist founder, Abdullah ÷calan (pronounced O-dja-lan), borders on cultish. Mr. ÷calan was captured in 1999, and is currently serving a life sentence in a Turkish island prison. His portrait is ubiquitous in the camps, on bright yellow banners or surrounded with flowers. His severe, moustached visage is painted in bold blue, white and black on a concrete slab, some 8 feet by 20 feet, above one of the camps. Semad has an image of Mr. ÷calan on the screen of his mobile phone.

On a quiet day at the camps, the wooden hovels, tents and clearings brim with domesticity, though alcohol and dating are banned. On a recent sunny morning, Saria, a 21-year-old Kurdish woman from Syria who joined the PKK five years ago, watered a patch of saplings. A male guerrilla chopped firewood. Inside one of the shacks, in a wooden bookcase straining under the weight of books written by Mr. ÷calan, there are two well-thumbed volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" in Turkish, the language most guerrillas here speak fluently and use in conversations alongside Kurdish.

The camps' relaxed feel belies their occupants' serious mission. "Our position now is self-defense war everywhere" against the Turkish military, the Kurdistan Workers' Party current leader, Murat Karaylan, said in a middle-of-the-night interview early last month in Qandil. Mr. Karaylan, a pistol holster under his vest, has been a PKK member since 1978 and leads a clandestine existence shuttling among mountain camps. His arrest and extradition are among Turkey's main demands. "If necessary, we can escalate [the war] four to five times," he said.

Washington's envoy, Gen. Ralston, did not speak with the PKK. Last month in northern Iraq, Ankara and Baghdad, he met with northern Iraq President Barzani, Turkish and Iraqi prime ministers, and U.S., Turkish and Iraqi military officials. He urged Iraqi leaders to put pressure on the guerrillas, asking them to close PKK offices and adopt other, as yet undisclosed, measures against the group. "Clearly, this is not an easy task," Gen. Ralston told reporters upon his return to Washington late last month.

In his interview, Mr. Karaylan said he had been pressed by Iraqi Kurdish officials to halt attacks on Turkish forces. On Thursday, the imprisoned Mr. ÷calan appealed to PKK guerrillas to call a cease-fire, asking them to fight back only if attacked by Turkish forces. In a news conference on Saturday, field leader Mr. Karaylan announced that the guerrillas would call a truce.

The Turkish government called instead for full disarmament. "A cease-fire is done between states," Prime Minister Erdogan told a Turkish television channel last week. "A terrorist organization must lay down its arms." On Sunday, hours after the truce took effect, Turkish soldiers killed a PKK fighter in Southeastern Turkey, not far from the Iraqi border.

Under pressure from the U.S. and Turkey, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite Arab, has promised to close PKK offices in Iraq. The Kurdistan Workers' Party, though, doesn't have many offices in Iraq, and prefers to operate in seclusion from the northern mountains. Iraqi forces would find it challenging to dismantle the camps: Baghdad does not have sway over Iraqi Kurdistan's Peshmerga security forces, who would be unlikely to turn their weapons against fellow Kurds.

Turkish officials say they are prepared to wait for the diplomacy to run its course before considering military options. But one Turkish government adviser says, "We won't wait too long." Iran, which has also suffered attacks from Kurdish separatists linked to the PKK and fighting out of the same Iraqi mountains, shelled northern Iraq earlier this year, according to officials in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iranian officials deny this.

Attacking With Rocks

While northern Iraq has assumed importance as a PKK haven, the root causes of the group's appeal to some Turkish Kurds can be found in the Turkish Southeast. The area still reels from the violence of the past two decades. Major riots erupted in the city of Diyarbakir in March after several PKK fighters were killed by Turkish forces. Thousands of young Kurds set up roadblocks, trashed banks and shops and attacked police with rocks. In some parts of Diyarbakir, a city of one million residents, unemployment runs as high as 70%.

Partly under pressure from the European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, Turkish officials have been trying to address some Kurdish demands for greater rights. Broadcasting in Kurdish, as well as Kurdish-language classes, have been allowed, though both activities are still tightly controlled. A few years ago, the PKK dropped its demand for an independent Kurdistan, saying it would be content with some form of autonomy inside Turkey. The government wants to channel investment to the region and now openly acknowledges that it has long neglected its Kurdish citizens and denied their identity. While these are small steps, they would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

"One of the reasons we were fighting was to provide the conditions for greater cultural and language rights. At the time it was necessary," says Hasan Seker, a one-time teacher in a village school who joined the PKK in the 1980s, fought, lost an index finger, was captured and spent nine years in prison. He now runs a cultural center in Diyarbakir promoting Kurdish music, literature and language. Though the center faces restrictions, he says the difference is obvious. "It's serious progress. We came from the point of 'Kurds don't exist' to this point," he says. "Of course it gives us hope."