Tensions Mount Between Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran

Iranian Kurdish rebels relax. i i

hide captionIranian Kurdish rebels relax in the shade of the Qandil Mountains. Commander Beryar Gabar (right) said the 2,000 militants in his faction are fighting to create a secular democracy in Iran.

Ivan Watson, NPR
Iranian Kurdish rebels relax.

Iranian Kurdish rebels relax in the shade of the Qandil Mountains. Commander Beryar Gabar (right) said the 2,000 militants in his faction are fighting to create a secular democracy in Iran.

Ivan Watson, NPR
Charred Iraqi hillside from Irani rocket attack. i i

hide captionIranian rocket barrages triggered fires that destroyed orchards and crops. These rocket attacks left charred hillsides in the Sewa District of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Ivan Watson, NPR
Charred Iraqi hillside from Irani rocket attack.

Iranian rocket barrages triggered fires that destroyed orchards and crops. These rocket attacks left charred hillsides in the Sewa District of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Ivan Watson, NPR
Map of Iraqi Kurdistan i i
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Map of Iraqi Kurdistan
Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Iraqi Kurds are calling for the U.S. military to release an Iranian official who was detained last week in Suleymaniye, a city in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

Iraqi Kurdistan has long been considered the most stable part of the country, but growing tensions with neighboring Iran have threatened that stability and reminded the Kurds how fragile their success story is.

Because foreign diplomats, soldiers and businessmen often pass through the lobby of the Suleymaniye Palace, considered the best hotel in the city, it was not unusual for the governor to offer rooms there to a large trade delegation from neighboring Iran.

Hotel workers were surprised, however, when more than a dozen American soldiers pulled up to the hotel at 4:30 a.m. last Friday morning. They went directly to the room of one of the Iranian visitors, a man named Mahmood Farhady, and knocked. Farhady answered, perhaps expecting the delivery of the pre-dawn meal commonly served during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Instead, the American troops detained Farhady and quickly led him out of the building. Within hours, the rest of the Iranian trade delegation fled Suleymaniye, back to nearby Iran.

Their Kurdish hosts were furious. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd from Suleymaniye, called the raid "illegal." Dana Majeed, the governor of Suleymaniye, labeled it "kidnapping."

Tehran's Reaction to the Detention

The U.S. military accused Farhady of arming and training insurgents in Iraq.

Majeed acknowledged that Farhady was a low-level member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, but he insists Farhady was doing nothing more than helping to expedite trade and transit across the border from Iran.

On Monday, Tehran slammed shut the border gates to Iraqi Kurdistan and demanded Farhady's release. Iraqi Kurds said the move will paralyze the economy of this land-locked region.

"It will have a very big impact because more than 50 percent of our goods were coming from Iran," said Hassan Baqi, president of the Suleymaniye Chamber of Commerce. Baqi said the American raid destroyed years of negotiations to establish an overland trade route from Iran's Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas to a border crossing near Suleymaniye.

Iraqi Kurdish Alliances

This is the second time American forces have detained official Iranian guests to Iraqi Kurdistan. Five Iranians are still in U.S. custody after an American raid on the Iranian liaison office in Erbil last January. That operation was also denounced by the Kurdish leadership.

Though the Iraqi Kurds are close American allies, they also take care not to provoke their larger, sometimes dangerous neighbor to the east.

"Iran is like an angry big brother," one Kurdish official said, on the condition of anonymity. "It can reward you or punish you, depending on the mood."

For example, the Iraqi Kurds fought for years against a Taliban-style Kurdish group called Ansar-al-Islam, which fortified itself on mountains along the Iranian border. During the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, American soldiers joined forces with the Kurdish peshmerga militia to crush Ansar-al-Islam.

Iranian Support of Ansar-Al-Islam

But Sheikh Jaffar, one of the Kurdish commanders, said that the surviving Ansar-Al-Islam militants fled to Iran, where they were sheltered, helped and trained. The militants were given bases, weapons and supplies, he said.

Earlier this year, Ansar-Al-Islam launched several lethal, cross-border raids against Kurdish security forces from Iranian territory, Kurdish officials say. Then, on Aug. 16, Iran began a cross-border artillery barrage at several points along the Iraqi frontier. The rocket and mortar fire forced more than 1,000 Kurdish civilians to flee their homes.

In the remote mountain border district of Sewa, hillside orchards and fields have been burned black by Iranian rocket fire. In the eerily-deserted village of Ganaw, a heavy metal cylinder with three tail fins — part of an Iranian rocket — lies next to the padlocked door of a one-story stone hut.

A Kurdish farmer, Hassan Mohamedi, said he witnessed some of the rocket fire. He stood next to the ruins of a house that had been demolished by a rocket.

There were days when 20 to 30 rockets would hit the village," Mohamedi said. "At first, we took our wives and children down to the valley to hide under a bridge. When the bombing didn't stop, we all fled."

Party For a Free Life in Kurdistan

Iran says the artillery attacks are aimed at destroying PEJAK, the Party For a Free Life in Kurdistan. Since 2003, this shadowy group of mostly Iranian Kurds, has been fighting the Iranian regime from the Iraqi side of the border.

To visit PEJAK members, you have to drive up bone-jarring dirt roads, out of the Iraqi Kurdish zone of control, to a remote valley which was recently also shelled by Iran. At a crude guest house, male and female militants are dressed in baggy green Kurdish combat fatigues. They smoked cigarettes in the shade, after hiking for hours to meet visiting journalists.

Biryar Gabar, a slender, soft-spoken PEJAK commander from the Iranian city of Sanandaj, claimed his fighters killed more than 100 Iranian security forces and shot down a helicopter, in an upsurge in fighting last month.

"The Iranian army tried many times to enter Iraqi Kurdistan," Gabar explained. "But that was where they faced our guerillas."

PEJAK also attacks border posts and military convoys on Iranian territory. It has claimed responsibility for sabotaging fuel pipelines that pumped natural gas to neighboring Turkey.

PEJAK's Goals and Alliances

Gabar says he and his 2,000 guerillas are fighting for a secular democracy in Iran. He also claims that PEJAK's leader, Rahman Haj Ahmadi, established ties with the U.S. government during a recent visit to Washington. But Gabar refused to offer details about this alleged relationship.

PEJAK may seem like a natural ally for the Bush administration in its growing confrontation with Iran. But the group is an offshoot of a Turkish Kurdish separatist group called the P.K.K., which the U.S. has officially labeled a terrorist organization.

Iran has repeatedly accused the United States of supporting PEJAK, but an official at the American Embassy in Baghdad denied any U.S. contact with PEJAK or the P.K.K.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Iran reportedly resumed its bombardment of several mountains in northern Iraq.

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