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September 22, 2007

Border Shelling Hits Iraqi Kurdish Villagers

by Jim Lobe

HAJI OMARAN (Iraq-Iran border) - Sixty-year-old Khadijah Hama Khan has had to flee home again. Nothing new. "All our life we have been on the run," she says.

This time she had to flee Iranian shelling on her border village. It was not easy; she injured her leg after walking barefoot two hours.

Now she lives in a tent with several other families on the foothills of the ragged Qandil mountains separating Iraq from Iran. Hundreds of families were forced to leave their villages to take refuge in shabby tents.

Here the families cook over burning wood, sleep on worn-out rugs, and drink from a dirty creek. Some children are suffering from diarrhea, at a time when large parts of Kurdistan region have been hit by cholera.

The tragedy of the millions of Iraqis displaced by violence in other parts of the country has overshadowed the new misery of these families. Despite their terrible living conditions, they have received almost no aid.

"This is no life we are living. We have lost everything, our crops and houses. For some nights we did not have food," said Halima Hassan, 35. "We don't even dare to go back because Iran may shell the area again."

The attacks started after the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PEJAK), an offshoot of the pro-independence Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), started striking military targets within Iran. That provoked heavy shelling of the northeastern border areas of Iraq in recent weeks.

On the northern side of Iraq's border, Turkey was not idle. It added to the shelling, aimed at PKK fighters.

Iran stopped shelling the border areas following official objection from the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. But Turkey resumed shelling on Saturday, and this may displace many more families.

The US has kept officially silent about the shelling, though United Nations resolutions place it in charge of protecting Iraq's sovereignty.

Iran and Turkey have numerously accused PKK and PEJAK of using US weapons.

PKK-PEJAK sources had earlier confirmed to IPS that PEJAK receives "limited" backing from the US. Given the close affinity between PEJAK and PKK, such weapons could easily fall into PKK hands.

Members of these groups deny this. Iraq is in any case a large market for illegal weapons trafficking, and anyone can obtain weapons, they say.

This new complication adds to the political mess in Iraq.

The US has repeatedly condemned Iran for alleged support of armed Shi'ite and even Sunni groups in Iraq. Hence, the US would see itself entitled to back PEJAK to counterbalance Iranian interference in Iraq's affairs.

To legitimize this, it has not designated PEJAK a terrorist organization, while it labels PEJAK sponsor PKK a terrorist group.

Iraqi Kurds say they are trapped in a US-Iran game on their territory. Although officially a part of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Qandil mountains range is under de-facto control of PKK and PEJAK. For decades, these mountains have been guerrilla strongholds hard for any army to control.

Iraqi Kurds may want to use PKK as a pressure card first to get Turks to recognize their federal entity in northern Iraq, and secondly, to end "Turkish interventions" in the internal affairs of the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kurds want to incorporate Kirkuk into their Kurdistan region, while Turkey vehemently opposes that, fearing it would embolden its own Kurdish population to demand more rights.

With the reelection of the moderate Justice and Development Party in Turkey, Iraqi Kurds see a window of hope for a new set of relations with their northern neighbor. In a positive gesture, Turkish President Abdullah Gul has said he will invite Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is also secretary-general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, to Ankara despite his predecessor's determination not to do so.

Iraqi Kurds hope that a more friendly attitude from Turkey and a general amnesty for PKK that could convince PKK fighters to lay down arms and leave Qandil would help mend fences with Turkey and turn over a new page in their tense relations.

But the new wave of optimism could evaporate if Turkish security forces accuse the PKK of involvement in the foiled bomb plots on Sep. 11 in Istanbul and Ankara. PKK has strongly denied any links with those plots.

Time is not on the side of the displaced villagers. As long as politicians fail to make progress, people living on the border between Iraq, Iran and Turkey will continue to pay a price.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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