Iran's Army Shells Iraqi Kurds Conducting Raids

Residents are trickling back to several villages in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, days after Iranian artillery shelled the border region for hours. Iranian forces were most likely targeting the nearby camps of the PKK. From pockets of territory that it controls in Northern Iraq, the PKK has recently stepped up its cross border raids against neighboring Iran and Turkey.

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Iraq's defense ministry says that several times in the last month, Iranian forces have launched artillery shells across the border into Iraq. The Iranian shells struck near the camps of Kurdish separatist group in Northern Iraq's remote Kandeel mountains.

NPR's Ivan Watson visited the area and he filed this report.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Sham Kader(ph) and eight of her family members were fast asleep Sunday night when a shell suddenly exploded right next to her stone hut.

Ms. SHAM KADER

WATSON: We ran away, she says. There were many explosions flashing like lightning. It continued for hours, she adds, until dawn.

(Soundbite of people speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Two days after the artillery barrage, Kader shows the crater and jagged shrapnel left by what locals say was an Iranian artillery shell. The explosions wounded one woman that night. There are other small craters scattered around this remote village called Risgah(ph) which is located high up amid the waterfalls and wildflowers of the rugged Kandeel Mountains.

Technically, this beautiful valley is Iraqi territory, governed by Iraqi Kurds who also hold top positions in the new government in Baghdad. But in fact, their authority ends at a checkpoint several miles from here. The paved road ends there, too, forcing visitors to continue much of the way on foot.

(Soundbite of foreign language being spoken)

WATSON: From here, up until the nearby border with Iran, is an enclave controlled by Kurdish separatists known as the PKK. Several PKK members, some of them armed, sit drinking tea outside a cabin.

(Soundbite of foreign language being spoken)

WATSON: They are ethnic Kurds from Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. For more than 20 years, this Kurdish movement has fought a guerrilla war in neighboring Turkey, which left more than 30,000 people dead. But in the past two years, some PKK members have also begun launching attacks across the border against security forces in neighboring Iran.

At a nearby cemetery, a Kurdish guerrilla goes by the code name Thedat(ph) shows at least 15 headstones from PKK fighters who were killed in Iran during 2004 and 2005.

Both Turkey and the U.S. call the PKK a terrorist organization, but since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the American military has resisted Turkish appeals for a crackdown on the Kurdish rebels. Meanwhile, PKK guerrilla attacks inside Turkey have intensified.

Over the past month, both Turkey and Iran have deployed large numbers of additional troops along their borders with Iraq. And both countries have launched cross border raids against the PKK.

Iraqi officials in Baghdad express concern about these developments but Nochiran Amin(ph), a Kurdish provincial official in Northern Iraq says there's little his government can do to stop the Turkish and Iranian incursions.

Mr. NOCHIRAN AMIN(ph) (Kurdish Provincial Official): How we can stop them? By which means? We have no planes, we have no tanks, we have no artillery. We have not a huge army.

WATSON: At the same time, the Iraqi-Kurdish leadership isn't exactly jumping to the defense of the PKK. Several years ago, the two Kurdish factions fought pitched battles against each other. Again, Nochiran Amin.

Mr. AMIN: We have no contact with them.

WATSON: Yesterday, a PKK leader in northern Iraq threatened retaliation if Iran and Turkey continue attacking PKK bases. Washington has urged its NATO ally, Turkey, not to engage in cross border operations. But yesterday, a top Turkish general said Turkey reserves the right to pursue PKK rebels into northern Iraq.

Iran, meanwhile, has avoided commenting on its artillery attacks. But Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Iranian moves against the PKK have won Tehran strong popular support in Turkey.

Mr. SONER CAGAPTAY (Turkish Analyst, Washington Institute for Near East Policy): The fact that it is bombing PKK bases in Iraq, it is turning Turkey's public opinion in a way, most favorably disposed towards Iran. In a way we haven't seen for at least decades.

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News in northern Iraq.

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