Kurds training in Iraq to fight Iran
Date: Saturday, February 03 2007
February 2, 2007
Kurds training in Iraq to fight Iran
By KATHY GANNON
QANDIL MOUNTAIN RANGE, Iraq (AP) - Deep in the mountains of eastern Iraq, a cluster of mud huts and the chatter of machine-gun fire reveal another piece of the jigsaw puzzle called Kurdistan.
Here, recruits are training to fight Iran, one of the four countries that rule the fractured Kurdish people. And although they belong to an organization officially outlawed as terrorist by Washington, they appear to be operating unhindered either by Iraqi-Kurdish units or the limited U.S. force in Kurdish areas.
A boulder-studded road spirals up through sun-soaked mountains to a pale yellow building that flies the flag of the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK), condemned as a terrorist organization by the United States and its NATO ally, Turkey.
A giant face of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK founder who is serving a life sentence in Turkey, is painted on the mountainside. Sixteen kilometres farther on lies the Qandil range, which runs like a snow-dusted spine along Iraq's northern border with both Turkey and Iran.
In the camp, lugging heavy machine-guns and AK-47 assault rifles, are men and women of the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PEJAK, an offshoot set up by the PKK in 2004 to fight for Kurdish autonomy in Iran.
The PKK and its affiliates are spread through a region of some 35 million Kurds that straddles Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. PEJAK, the newest group, claims to number thousands of recruits, and targets only Iran - a mission which has made PEJAK the subject of intense speculation that it is being used to undermine Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In the Nov. 27 issue of the New Yorker magazine, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote PEJAK is receiving support from the United States, as well as from Israel, which fears Iran's nuclear ambitions and Ahmadinejad's call to wipe the Jewish state off the map.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment on the claim of U.S. support for PEJAK on Friday.
PEJAK said it regularly launches raids into Iran and Iran has fired back with artillery. In October the English-language Iran Daily newspaper, published by Iran's official news agency, said Iran accused PEJAK of killing dozens of its armed forces in insurgent attacks.
U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich an Ohio Democrat and presidential candidate who claims the White House is overplaying the Iranian threat, last year wrote to President George W. Bush expressing concern the United States was using PEJAK to weaken Ahmadinejad.
James Brandon, an analyst for the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation, said PEJAK has refused to discuss its funding sources. But he said its greatest threat to Iran is not military. It has veins running deep into the Iranian-Kurdish population and is offering to join forces with other restless minorities in Iran, he said.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said: "Israel is not involved in any way in what's going on there."
Meir Javedanfar, an Israel-based Iran expert, noted however Israel has a long-standing relationship with Iraqi-Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani and "It would not surprise me to discover that Israel is using the Kurdish areas of Iraq to undermine Iran's influence in Iraq and monitor what's going on along the Iranian border, as well as to undermine the Iranian government itself."
Hussein Afsheen, commander at a PEJAK training camp tucked in the shadow of the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, said: "PKK gives ideological and logistical support," while funding comes from Iranian Kurds. He said he didn't know of U.S. funding but would gladly accept it.
The camp is designed to toughen up the new recruits, who numbered 38. Beds are single wool blankets spread over a rough concrete floor, or over a narrow steel bench that hugs an icy mud wall. The only heat comes from a wood-fired potbelly stove.
It's still pitch dark and freezing at 5 a.m., when the fighters line up and pledge allegiance to the Kurdish cause.
Soztar Afreen, a 22-year-old Syrian with a quick smile, said she joined five years ago and the first months were tough.
"I had trouble keeping up. You have to toughen yourself."
"The physical work is difficult but once you get used to it life here gets easier," she said.
She recalled her parents, PKK sympathizers, sent her off with this plea: "Don't let down the struggle; make us proud."
Gunfire and explosions echo off mountainsides as recruits learn to fire artillery and rocket-launchers and automatic rifles. They are taught to lay ambushes and endure long hours isolated and in hiding.
Food is spartan - potatoes, tomato broth, onions and a lot of bread baked flat in a deep stone oven.
Much time is spent in ideological training and studying Ocalan's vision of a united Kurdistan, which the guerrillas said has gradually shifted from demanding full-blown independence to settling for autonomy as a distinct culture within the various countries where they live.
PEJAK ideology is rigorously leftist and includes equality of the sexes - unusual in this region. The camp has two leaders, a man and a woman.
The male one, Afsheen, is a Turkish Kurd who joined the PKK in 1990, at age 19. He said he enlisted after Turkish soldiers herded him, his family and his neighbours into the town square and burned down their homes.
Four shepherds were coming home and "the soldiers just opened fire on them."
"I had inside of me a lot of anger. I promised I would get my revenge," said Afsheen.
In training, "Recruits were put in a cave and left there for a month, allowed out only for half an hour each day. We walked for hours in frigid water," he said.
Afsheen said he has made several forays into Iran, including one monthlong trek to the Iranian town Shahha three months ago, not to attack Iranians but to organize Kurds.
"We were discovered. There was a firefight and it went on until dark."
"We were pinned down, trapped," he said.
"At nightfall, we found an opening and we tried to slip out but we were discovered. The firing went on again and they called in their helicopters."
"One of our friends was wounded and three Iranian security men were killed."