QANDIL MOUNTAINS (Iraq-Iran-Turkey) – The fragile quiet in this no-man’s-land is broken by a young fighter shooting into the air at a regular morning ceremony to “commemorate martyrs.”
The firing is more than ceremonial. A new threat of war is looming in this mountain range in the north of Iraq, cutting into Turkey and Iran.
All three countries have large Kurdish populations, and the governments of all three are worried about a Kurdish uprising for a separate homeland. Only in Iraq do Kurds have an autonomous region of their own.
Over the past few months Turkey and Iran have been threatening to sweep positions held by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party of Turkey (PKK) off these mountains. They accuse the PKK of launching cross-border operations from Iraq’s soil into Turkey and Iran.
The PKK announced unilateral ceasefire Oct. 1 last year, symbolically on World Peace Day, but it was rejected by the Turkish government.
“We don’t want to be forced to fight, and are still expecting a positive response to our ceasefire message from the relevant parties,” Rostam Joudi, member of PKK’s leadership council told IPS.
“Otherwise, we are quite prepared to counter any (Turkish) military operation. We can raise the level of the conflict…and it may get bigger than the Iraq and Arab-Israeli conflicts.”
PKK is on the terror list of Turkey, the United States and the European Union. The group’s fight for a Kurdish homeland in Turkey since the early 1980s has claimed more than 35,000 lives.
The prospect of a conflict between PKK and Turkish troops has worried Iraqi Kurds who fear that a Turkish attack on PKK bases may lead to long-term occupation of their Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.
It was mainly Iraqi Kurds who persuaded PKK to announce the ceasefire, hoping it would open the channel for diplomacy. But the move backfired; Turks argued that it was a sign of Iraqi Kurds’ relations with PKK.
Turkish army chief Gen. Yasar Buyukanit accused Iraqi Kurdish political parties last month of being “the biggest supporter of the PKK at the moment.” Iraq’s Kurdish political parties are now uncertain how to deal with the PKK.
Kurdistan regional president Massoud Barzani told the Turkish NTV channel that his forces will not simply stand by should Turkish troops enter northern Iraq. The Kurdistan regional government also rejects military action against the PKK guerillas; a Kurd attack on Kurds will be strongly opposed by the public.
Kurd leaders in Iraq are well aware that the PKK presence in Kurdistan imperils the stability of their region and makes it a target for Turkish as well as Iranian forces.
Since the spring of last year Turkish and Iranian forces have occasionally shelled villages on the borders. Several Kurds have been killed.
The Kurdish leadership in Iraq has frequently called on the Turkish government for better treatment of its own Kurdish population and a general amnesty for PKK guerillas. This, they hope, would persuade PKK members to go for a political struggle and leave the Iraqi Kurdistan mountains.
But PKK leaders reject disbanding their party and leaving Qandil.
“The presence of our forces in (Iraqi) Kurdistan region is not something to negotiate over,” Joudi said. He said the PKK does not use Iraqi Kurdistan soil to launch its attacks, and that it has fighters inside Turkish soil for that.
Recent developments in the region have not been in PKK’s interest. Iran is seeking to build a regional alliance with Turkey to defuse international pressure on its nuclear program. As a part of this plan it has shelled PKK positions in Qandil in an apparent bid to appease Turkey.
Iran has also been taking on the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), an offshoot of PKK in the Kurdish regions of Iran.
The PJAK, which PKK officials told IPS enjoys limited U.S. support, has conducted several guerrilla operations in the western, predominantly Kurdish areas of Iran. The fighting has left dozens of casualties on both sides.
PKK leaders are expecting a Turkish military invasion in spring. They expect the attack to have limited scope in terms of “the time and area of operation.”
As the likelihood of a fierce battle between PKK and Turkey rises, the guerrillas’ determination is not shaken.
Heval Aslan, 24, joined PKK eight years ago after his village was twice razed by the Turkish army. He has a serious leg injury, but he says he can fight if he has to.
“No one wants to die or to kill. Our motto is that we are prepared for both peace and war.”