On Iraqi Kurdistan mountain fortress, anti-Turkish
QANDIL MOUNTAIN, Iraqi Kurdistan border with
Turkey, -- On the way to the Qandil mountains, a
potential flashpoint for yet another Middle
East war, Kurdish officials give blunt assessments
of the limits of their sovereignty and power to curb
"The problem with the border region is that we have
no authority over it," said police major Abu Bakr
Abdul Rahman Hussein in the town of Qalat Dizah in
northern Iraq's semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.
"We can't go there. The mountains are full of PKK,"
he added, referring to guerrillas of the Kurdistan
A few miles east, at a base of the Iraqi Frontier
Guard, Colonel Ahmed Sabr sternly warned of the
dangers lurking ahead: "From here on, you are on
your own. We can't help if anything happens to you.
The area is full of people with guns -- PKK,
Iranians, armed shepherds."
The Qandil mountain is on the border with Iran, part
of a range that stretches north to the border with
Turkey, whose army has launched several major
anti-guerrilla operations into Iraq since the PKK
began fighting the Turkish state in 1984 in a
struggle for autonomy that has killed more than
During a bitterly contested campaign for July 22
parliamentary elections in Turkey, the Turkish armed
forces urged the government to allow it to strike
across the border to crush the estimated 4,000 PKK
guerrillas who use the mountains as their base of
The PKK is outlawed in Turkey and considered a
terrorist organization by the United States and the
Turkish officials have accused the United States of
failing to pressure the Kurdistan Regional
Government (KRG) in (northern Iraq) to crack down on
the PKK to defuse tension along the border of the
Kurdistan region, which has been an oasis of
relative peace in war-torn Iraq.
Iraqi Kurds, in general, sympathize with the PKK
owing to their ethnic kinship.
The fragility of that peace was highlighted
on July 18 when the Turkish
army fired around 100 shells into the
vicinity of the northern border town of Zakho in
Kurdistan region, according to the KRG's deputy
minister for security forces, Jabar Yawer. No-one
was hurt but scores of residents fled the area.
"YOUR CELLPHONES PLEASE"
Driving into PKK territory -- the "border" is a
cement bridge not far from Colonel Sabr's frontier
fort -- explains why the Kurdish government
considers the Qandil mountain a no-go zone and why
the Marxist-Leninist guerrillas appear supremely
confident they could withstand a Turkish invasion or
a crackdown by the KRG's forces.
This is ideal guerrilla country, where fighters
intimately familiar with the soaring peaks and deep
valleys of the region have a natural advantage over
any attacker. Even Saddam Hussein's army, waging
ruthless and repeated campaigns, failed to dislodge
Neither did large-scale Turkish incursions in 1995
and 1997 involving an estimated 35,000 and 50,000
Climbing up towards a guerrilla encampment at the
hamlet of Marado, on the flank of the mountain, the
track is so rutted that a jeep negotiates it at
crawling pace, wheels inches from the edge and a
drop of hundreds of feet.
The first sign of PKK presence -- and a degree of
nervousness about possible attacks -- comes at a
guard post manned by two fighters carrying
Kalashnikov rifles and serious expressions. Before
allowing the visitors to travel on, they have to
surrender their passports.
"And your cellphones please," said one. "Satellite
phones, too. All means of communications."
This is a new regulation, according to people
familiar with the area, part of ever-more elaborate
security precautions and fears that visitors could
communicate the coordinates of guerrilla outposts,
including the PKK "guesthouse" even higher up the
flank of the mountain and so well camouflaged it is
difficult to see.
The area around the camp is lined with steep
hillsides and dotted with trees. There is no sign of
life except for the odd flock of sheep and a
The guesthouse is in the shade of an ancient oak
tree, next to a large satellite dish. At the
guesthouse, three woman PKK fighters in uniform in
their early 30s served tea. They did not carry
None of the PKK leaders who occasionally receive
visitors here are available but in a telephone
interview, Abdul Rahman Chaderchi, the official in
charge of the PKK's foreign relations, said a
Turkish cross-border attack now would have no better
chance of success than previous incursions.
"We are well prepared, all along the mountains," he
said, adding that a Turkish attack would be a
"strategic mistake" that would unite Kurds on both
sides of the borders and elsewhere in the Middle
There are Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Iraq, Iran
and Syria who make up the world's largest ethnic
group without an independent state -- more than "30"
million people in all. A fully independent Iraqi
Kurdistan would be a threat to the stability of each
of the countries where they live.
Turkey has the largest Kurdish population and the
election campaign prompted a surge of nationalist
feeling that has made some Kurdish politicians fear
election rhetoric might be transformed into military
action after Sunday's vote.
In Washington, conservatives place the onus for
defusing the potentially explosive border tension on
Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan
regional government (KRG).
A few days before the Turkish vote, Michael Rubin, a
Middle East scholar at the American Enterprise
Institute, told a session of the U.S. House Foreign
Affairs Committee that Barzani "should expel PKK
terrorists" from their strongholds.
Judging from a day in their natural fortress of the
Qandil range, this seems much easier said than done.
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