In the Qandil Mountains.
Hiding in the high mountains and deep gorges of one of the world’s great natural fortresses are bands of guerrillas whose presence could provoke a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq and the next war in the Middle East.
In the weeks before the Turkish election on Sunday, Turkey has threatened to cross the border into Iraq in pursuit of the guerrillas of the Turkish Kurdish movement, the PKK, and its Iranian Kurdish offshoot, Pejak.
The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, warns that there are 140,000 Turkish troops massed just north of the frontier.
“Until recently, we didn’t take the Turkish threat that seriously but thought it was part of the election campaign,” says Safeen Sezayee. A leading Iraqi Kurdish expert on Turkey and spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Mr Dezayee now sees an invasion as quite possible.
The Iraqi Kurds are becoming nervous. The drumbeat of threats from Turkish politicians and generals has become more persistent. “The government and opposition parties are competing to show nationalist fervour,” says Mr Dezayee. Anti-PKK feeling is greater than ever in Turkey.
Most menacingly, Turkey is appalled that the Kurds are key players in Iraqi politics and are developing a semi-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq.
After the election, Ankara may find it impossible to retreat from the bellicose rhetoric of recent weeks and will send its troops across the border, even if the incursion is only on a limited scale.
If the Turkish army does invade, it will not find it easy to locate the PKK guerrillas. Their main headquarters is in the Qandil mountains which are on the Iranian border but conveniently close to Turkey. It is an area extraordinarily well-adapted for guerrilla warfare where even Saddam Hussein’s armies found it impossible to penetrate.
To reach Qandil, we drove east from the Kurdish capital Arbil to the well-watered plain north of Dokan lake. In the town of Qala Diza, destroyed by Saddam Hussein but now being rebuilt, the local administrator Maj Bakir Abdul Rahman Hussein was quick to say that Qandil was ruled by the PKK: ” We don’t have any authority there.” He said there was regular shelling from Iran that led to some border villages being evacuated but he did not seem to consider this out of the ordinary. “The Iranians do it whenever they are feeling international pressure,” he said.
We hired a four-wheel drive vehicle and a driver in black Kurdish uniform who was from Qandil. Just below the mountains, we were stopped by the paramilitary Iraqi Frontier Guards. A red-white-and-black Iraqi flag, a rare sight in Kurdistan, flew over their headquarters which is built like a miniature medieval castle.
Kurdish officials close to Qandil are strangely eager to disclaim any authority over their own sovereign territory. In a stern lecture, after consulting with his superiors by phone, Lt- Col Ahmad Sabir of the Frontier Guards said we could go on but “we have no control beyond this point and no responsibility for what happens to you. You may meet PKK, Iranians on the border or shepherds with guns.”
The road to the mountain climbs up the sides of steep hills dotted with small oak trees, past hamlets with flat roofs made from mud and brushwood.
The road is at first pot-holed asphalt, then broken rock and finally, after crossing a bridge over a mountain torrent, it gives up being a road at all and becomes a track, parts of which had been swept away by avalanches.
The first sign of the PKK was a sentry box confidently in the open with two armed men in khaki uniform who confiscated our passports and mobile phones. Driving on, we came to a strange and exotic mausoleum to the PKK dead. Its walls are painted white and red and inside the gates are ornamental ponds and flowerbeds overlooked by a white column 30ft high, on top of which is miniature yellow star in metal or concrete, the symbol of the PKK.
The cemetery, built in 2002, holds 67 graves and stands in the middle of the deserted Marado valley inhabited only by grazing cattle. “Just three of those buried here died from natural causes,” says Farhad Amat, a PKK soldier from Dyarbakir in Turkey who is in charge of the mausoleum.
Founded in the 1970s, the PKK fought a lengthy but ultimately unsuccessful guerrilla war in south-east Turkey in which at least 35,000 people died. A Marxist-Leninist separatist Kurdish organisation, its leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999 and its 4,000 well-trained fighters sought refuge in northern Iraq.
The inscriptions on the grave-stones tell the tragic history of the PKK. Almost all of those who died were Turkish Kurds, many of them very young. For instanc,e a girl fighter whose nom de guerre was “Nergis” and real name Khazar Kaba was just 16 when she was killed on 30 July 2001.
At a PKK guest house by a brook shaded by ancient trees, we met several women guerrillas, who, contrary to patriarchal Kurdish traditions, play an important role in the PKK. They were wearing uniform and with them was an Iranian Kurdish family consisting of a mother, father and son. Their presence was unexplained until we were leaving when the father, Agai Mohammedi from Sina in Iran, suddenly blurted out that they were trying to find and bring home his 25-year-old son who had run off to join the PKK.
They were going from camp to camp looking for him but were always told he was not there. “Please, can you help us,” asked Mr Mohammedi but there was nothing we could do.
The scale of the fighting is small. Pejak launches sporadic raids into Iranian Kurdistan. The PKK stages ambushes and bombings in Turkey and has escalated its attacks this year, killing at least 67 soldiers and losing 110 of its own fighters according to the Turkish authorities. But this limited skirmishing could have an explosive impact. The attacks provide an excuse for Turkish action against an increasingly independent Iraqi Kurdish state. “They [the Turks] want an excuse to overturn what has been achieved in Iraqi Kurdistan,” says Mr Dezayee. A referendum is to be held in northern Iraq by the end of 2007 under which the oil city of Kirkuk may vote to join the KRG. The incentive for a Turkish invasion is growing by the day.
“Everything depends on the result of the Turkish election,” says Dr Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Iraqi Kurdish politician.
If the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wins a two-thirds majority then the pressure for an invasion may be off. But if he believes he lost votes because his anti-PKK and Turkish nationalist credentials were not strong enough then he might want to burnish them by ordering a cross border incursion.
The lightly armed PKK, knowing every inch of the mountainous terrain at Qandil, will be able to evade Turkish troops. But the Iraqi Kurds worry that they and not the PKK are the real target of the Turkish army. After making so many threats before the election, Turkey may find it difficult to back off without looking weak.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.