Facing The Islamic State Threat, Kurdish Fighters Unite : Parallels Kurdish groups have often quarreled among themselves, or at least kept their distance. But Kurds from Iraq and Turkey have been fighting side by side in northern Iraq against the Islamic State.
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Facing The Islamic State Threat, Kurdish Fighters Unite

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Facing The Islamic State Threat, Kurdish Fighters Unite

Facing The Islamic State Threat, Kurdish Fighters Unite

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Up in the mountains of northern Iraq, a group of Kurdish guerrilla fighters has been in hiding for years. The PKK, as the Kurdistan Workers' Party is known, is considered a terror group by the U.S. And they have been treated with suspicion even by fellow Kurds. NPR's Alice Fordham takes us to one little Kurdish town where that's changing.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: At a checkpoint outside the northern Iraqi town of Makhmur is something I've never seen before.

Two men check cars. One's young and wearing a sand-colored uniform of the official forces called Peshmerga. The other's older, grizzled and dressed in an olive-green traditional Kurdish overall, and he's with the PKK.

HAJJI HUSSEIN ABDULRAHMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: We're happy to be working together, says the older man named Hajji Hussein Abdulrahman. It's a new thing. Until recently, Peshmerga and the Iraqi Kurdish authorities didn't deal with the PKK much. There's a long rivalry between the two. Plus Turkey and the U.S. consider them terrorists who hit civilian Turkish targets in the 1990s. But some of those attitudes began to change when the so-called Islamic State charged into northern Iraq and took turf including this town.

ABDULRAHMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Abdulrahman tells me how militants from the Islamic State blasted in in early June. The Peshmerga was struggling to fight back. But there's a refugee camp here where thousands of PKK supporters kicked out of Turkey live, and they picked up their old rifles.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

FORDHAM: At that PKK camp, I meet a civilian official, Polat Mohammad Khalil.

POLAT MOHAMMAD KHALIL: (Through translator) We evacuated all the civilians - the women and kids and elderly people - from the camps, and then we reorganized ourselves as guerrillas to confront ISIS.

FORDHAM: They joined forces with the Peshmerga and began to fight back. With the help of U.S. airstrikes, they pushed the militants out.

KHALIL: (Through translator) Yes, it was the first time for us to coordinate with the Peshmerga to be in one place, one position. So we have to thank ISIS because they unified us.

FORDHAM: And in town, people seem grateful. Aram Karim chats while he makes me a sandwich.

ARAM KARIM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says the PKK help was a surprise. The camp's been here since the '90s, but they never did any fighting. They were always good neighbors, he says, but I like them much more now. And it's not just here; on Mount Sinjar in August, the PKK helped tens of thousands of minority Yazidis escape the Islamic State. And their close sister group in Syria, the YPG, have been keeping the militants out of the town of Kobani. Still...

HENRI BARKEY: The United States will not on the PKK change policy. It doesn't talk to the PKK. It considers it as a terrorist organization. It follows a Turkish line.

FORDHAM: Turkey expert Henri Barkey of Lehigh University there. Many think it's unlikely the international community will change their view of the PKK soon. Turkey blames them for the deaths of three soldiers just this week and targets them with airstrikes. But on the PKK's Syrian sister group, the YPG, Barkey thinks there has been a shift. They're not on the U.S. terror list, and last week the U.S. air dropped them weapons. Alice Fordham, NPR News.

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