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 On Iraqi Kurdistan mountain fortress, anti-Turkish fighters rule

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On Iraqi Kurdistan mountain fortress, anti-Turkish fighters rule  23.7.2007 



July 23, 2007

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 anti-Turkish guerrillas.

"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 Workers Party.

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 30,000 people.

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 operations.

The PKK is outlawed in Turkey and considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

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.


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 them.

Neither did large-scale Turkish incursions in 1995 and 1997 involving an estimated 35,000 and 50,000 troops, respectively.

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 shepherd.

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 weapons.

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 East.


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.

Copyright , respective author or news agency, Reuters


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