Iraqi Kurds Prepare for Possible Turkish Invasion

Turkish Helicopter i i

A Turkish army cobra helicopter flies over PKK camps on Cudi Mountain in the Turkey-Iraq border area. For weeks, Turkey has been threatening to launch military operations into neighboring Iraq. Burak Kara/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Burak Kara/Getty Images
Turkish Helicopter

A Turkish army cobra helicopter flies over PKK camps on Cudi Mountain in the Turkey-Iraq border area. For weeks, Turkey has been threatening to launch military operations into neighboring Iraq.

Burak Kara/Getty Images

Cross-Border Tensions

Read more about the Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK.

PKK Fighters i i

Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters train in northern Iraq, around 10 miles from the Turkish border. Turks are demanding that the Iraqi Kurds rein in PKK guerillas. Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images
PKK Fighters

Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters train in northern Iraq, around 10 miles from the Turkish border. Turks are demanding that the Iraqi Kurds rein in PKK guerillas.

Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani i i

Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani at a recent press conference. Barzani's chief of staff says the leader will not give in to Turkish demands to extradite PKK leaders. Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani

Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani at a recent press conference. Barzani's chief of staff says the leader will not give in to Turkish demands to extradite PKK leaders.

Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey has been beating the war drums for weeks, threatening to launch military operations into neighboring Iraq.

The operation would attack rebels from the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, hiding in the mountains along the border.

The Turks are demanding that the Iraqi Kurds, who control northern Iraq, rein in the PKK guerillas who have staged cross-border raids into Turkey.

Top officials in the Kurdistan regional government accuse the Turks of using the PKK as a pretext to attack the Iraqi Kurds. The Turks fear that the emergence of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq could inspire Turkey's own Kurdish minority.

Eeriness Along the Border

The village of Kashane lies in a deep-mountain gorge between the last Iraqi Kurdish security checkpoint and the border with Turkey.

This week, it was mostly deserted. Most of the locals fled after days and nights of Turkish artillery strikes in the hills nearby.

The once-popular picnic grounds and orchards near a fast rushing river were eerily abandoned.

At the grounds on Monday, a handful of Kurdish PKK rebels, dressed in olive green combat fatigues, gathered wood by the river.

When a visitor approached, two armed fighters appeared in a pick-up truck, loaded with firewood.

These PKK rebels wouldn't give their names, but their accents identified them as Kurds from Turkey. They said they are fighting for the cultural and political rights of Turkey's long-oppressed Kurdish minority.

"We are not afraid of Turkish soldiers and tanks," one fighter said. He pointed at the steep mountains that cast a shadow over the valley and added, "Those are our tanks."

Iraqi Kurds Caught in the Middle

Iraqi Kurds have mixed feelings about the PKK.

Apple farmer Husein Kashane complained that one time the rebels forced locals out of the valley and then stole their crops and produce.

But, he added, he is much more afraid of nearby Turkey.

"To be quite honest with you, Turkey hates all the Kurdish people — whether they are PKK or not PKK," Kashane said. "They all hate Kurds."

Fouad Hussein, the chief of staff for Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, thinks that the Turks are using the PKK as a pretext to attack the Kurds.

"The PKK is not the target. The target is Kurdistan regional government," Hussein said.

Iraqi Kurds and the PKK

In the 1990s, Barzani's men fought side by side with the Turks in northern Iraq against the PKK, but today, Barzani has become a hated figure in Turkey. Ankara refuses to officially recognize his administration.

"They don't recognize us. They don't want to talk with us, but they are asking us to fight for them," Hussein says. "How is it possible?"

Hussein said Barzani will not give in to Turkish demands to extradite PKK leaders.

"They want to push us to fight another Kurdish group, so there will be internal fighting between the Kurds," Hussein said. "And that means, actually, the experience in Kurdistan will disappear and will be destroyed — will be destroyed by the Kurds, through the Kurds and killing the Kurds."

The Iraqi Kurds deny Turkish claims that they are providing logistical, material and moral support to the PKK.

They also argue that it is futile to try to dislodge the PKK's battle-hardened guerillas from their mountain hideouts. They say hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqi Kurds died trying to do just this during the '90s.

Iraqi Kurdistan Prepares for an Invasion

Kurdistan Regional Assembly Speaker Adnan al-Mufti says the only solution is dialogue between the Turks and the PKK.

"We ask PKK to not only announce [a] ceasefire," al-Mufti said. "To announce this [cease]fire without condition, and to follow it forever."

While claiming he has no control over the PKK in northern Iraq, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has, at the same time, warned that if the Turks launched a cross-border invasion, his men would fight back. He added ominously that the conflict could have ripple effects among Turkey's own Kurdish minority.

On Monday, truckloads of helmeted Iraqi Kurdish fighters rolled through the border town of Zakho — within sight of Turkey. One Iraqi Kurdish official said this was aimed at raising the Kurdish security presence along the border.

Iraqi Kurds living within earshot of the frequent Turkish cross-border artillery barrages have adopted a fatalistic approach to the crisis.

Teashop owner Abdullah Mohamed Ali says his house was destroyed twice in the '90s during Turkish incursions against the PKK. He says he's not afraid of another Turkish invasion.

"They have tanks and planes, and we have God who can protect us," Ali said. "We have been living here for 50 years. We're not going to hand it over so easily."

With neither side willing to compromise, Turkish and Kurdish nationalism appears to be on a collision course in the mountains in northern Iraq.

Q&A: Tensions Rise Along the Turkey-Iraq Border

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

In the past two decades, Turkish troops have staged dozens of incursions into Iraq in pursuit of guerrilla fighters. Recently, the tensions building along the Turkish-Iraqi border have been rising again.

The present conflict began in 1984, but it has roots dating back at least as far as the creation of the modern state of Turkey. Here's some background on the history and the issues behind the story:

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are an ethnic group. They occupy a mountainous area of the Middle East that's roughly the size of France. Much of it is in eastern Turkey, but it also overlaps substantial parts of Iraq and Iran, and smaller areas in Syria and Armenia. There are thought to be as many as 37 million Kurds. They've been described as the world's largest ethnic population that doesn't have a homeland of its own.

Why is there a 'Kurdish problem?'

After World War I, when the great powers divided up the Ottoman Turkish Empire, there was a treaty that would have created a Kurdish nation. But this fell by the wayside when Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk claimed much of the area for modern Turkey. Ataturk believed it was important to forge disparate groups into a "Turkish nationality," so the Kurds were referred to as "mountain Turks." They were forbidden to speak their language, use ethnic names, or to teach their children Kurdish culture. Kurds responded with uprisings in 1920s and 30s, all of which were put down by Turkish troops.

What is the PKK?

It's the Kurdish Workers' Party. It was originally a Marxist group created in the 1970s and dedicated to an independent Kurdish state. From 1984 to 1999, the PKK fought the Turkish military in an insurgency that depopulated much of the countryside of southeastern Turkey.

Are PKK members terrorists?

Few people would argue that the PKK does not use terrorist tactics. Linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky says the PKK does commit terrorist acts, but he charges that the United States helped make it possible for Turkey to carry on a "horrendous counter-insurgency campaign" that victimized innocent civilians. "To our shame, Turkey could do that thanks to the huge flow of military aid from the U.S., which escalated as atrocities peaked, and the failure of the press to report it," Chomsky says.

Chomsky, who has been involved in Kurdish human-rights issues, says the Turkish army killed tens of thousands of Kurds and destroyed more than 3,000 Kurdish villages. The PKK is accused of atrocities as well, notably against Kurdish clans that resisted its control. The United States and other nations have branded the PKK a terrorist organization.

What's the PKK doing in Iraq?

During the1990s, the Turkish military forced the guerrillas to move some of their operations out of the country. PKK fighters established hide-outs and training bases in the mountains of Iraq. After Turkey arrested the long-time leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, Ocalan called on PKK members in Turkey to withdraw to their Iraqi bases and work for peace. The group maintained a four-year ceasefire and some members said they were prepared to join the Turkish political process if Turkey would agree not to prosecute them.

Kevin McKiernan, author of The Kurds: a people in search of their homeland, says the guerrillas were split at the time, and "Turkey might have broken the movement then if it had offered an amnesty." The PKK ended its truce in 2004.

Some PKK fighters have since returned to Turkey, but as many as 3,000 are believed to be in Iraq. The rugged terrain on the Iraqi side makes it particularly hard to dislodge them. And while the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq has condemned PKK attacks on innocent people in Turkey, the group still finds support among some Iraqi Kurds.

Why does the Turkish government seem so unwilling to deal with the rebels?

McKiernan says the Turks are extraordinarily sensitive to threats of separatism, because they have never forgotten how Ottoman territory was taken away and carved up after World War I.

Najmaldin Karim, the president of the Washington Kurdish Institute, says another factor is that Turkey's military has little interest in seeing the problem solved politically. He says the army, which has been a potent force in the country since the days of Ataturk, is losing influence and that it sees the ongoing guerilla war as a way of maintaining its relevance.

What if Turkey does attack?

Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has said his region will "defend itself" against any incursions from Turkey. Karim says a Turkish invasion would create havoc in what is now the only peaceful part of Iraq.

McKiernan says that Turkish public sentiment in favor of an incursion is being stirred up by images of the flag-draped coffins of slain Turkish soldiers in the news media, but notes that the military has a very short time in which to act before winter makes the rebel camps inaccessible. "This is one of the most rugged places in the Middle East," McKiernan says. "It's probably too late to get in there by the first week in November."

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