The reasons why many people in Kurdish-administered northern Iraq see a Turkish invasion as a real possibility become ever more apparent as you near the border.
There are abandoned villages, craters in the road from recent shelling, some unexploded shells in the fields, and fires that have been lit on the mountainsides by artillery barrages.
Residents of the Zakho and Kanimasi areas in Dahuk Governorate claim there is regular artillery and mortar fire coming from the Turkish side of the border. The targets are the militiamen of the separatist Turkish-Kurd PKK, who have bases in this mountainous area. But the locals say the shelling and Turkish raids into Iraq to chase the militants seriously threaten their own lives, too.
"The PKK elements are armed. They pass across the border and go into the mountains. We cannot stop them, because they would kill us if we tried.”
Between Shelling and Gunmen
Abdul-Rahman Mahmud, from the village of Kista, three kilometers from the Turkish border, is the head of a family of eight that makes its living by keeping bees.
“Some villages have been abandoned in this area," Mahmud said. "The only ones remaining are the older men who stay to care for the beehives, or to irrigate peach, apple, walnut, and pomegranate orchards. The shelling has affected us to the point where we can no longer look after the bees, and there is a pasture known as Ayn al-Jawz to which we have been unable to take our grazing animals. It forces us to keep the cattle in hot areas.”
He says the local population has no contacts with the PKK fighters who have hideouts in the area.
“All of their [PKK fighters] necessities come from Turkey, across the border. We are occupied with our own affairs. The PKK elements are armed. They pass across the border and go into the mountains. We cannot stop them, because they would kill us if we tried,” Mahmud said.
If the fighting continues or grows in intensity, he says, the villagers will have to seek refuge elsewhere. Some of his own neighbors already have. “Zubayr has already fled because of the shelling, leaving behind his land. He took his livestock and departed the region.”
Another village, known as Nuzduri, is four kilometers from the Turkish border. It has 56 houses but they are all abandoned now. Ramadhan Mir Ahmed, who stayed in the area to look after his orchard, claims the reason is the same – shelling.
“Since autumn we and our families have been raising our cattle peacefully. Then they started artillery fire, which came at us, and it continued for a month. Just yesterday, an artillery round struck the road, and the shelling continued on the mountain areas,” Ahmed told Radio Free Iraq.
He believes that the Iraqi government, the Kurdistan regional government, or the coalition forces will have to reach an agreement with the Turkish government to stop shelling the villages.
Turkish troops have been massing near the Iraqi border (AFP)
Some people come from time to time to check on their homes, to irrigate the orchards, where the fruit is beginning to ripen, or to look after their abandoned crops. One is Majid Othman. He said that his family resettled in the area earlier this year but had to leave again because of the region's instability.
“We took our livestock away in four trips. And we ask [the Turkish military] to stop shelling us because we are neighbors and we must be compassionate with each other,” he said.
The areas most targeted by shelling – which are also the areas where PKK elements can be seen – are sealed off by checkpoints. They are manned by peshmerga -- soldiers linked to the autonomous Kurdish region’s authorities. They warn travelers to proceed at their own risk.
A PKK Base in Iraqi Kurdistan
There is another checkpoint ahead when one reaches the slopes of Qindil Mountain in the Iraqi-Turkish-Iranian border triangle. Now the checkpoints are manned by PKK fighters. Here PKK flags are flying and there is a large picture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is imprisoned in Turkey. Anyone going further is forbidden to take pictures and must submit to a full search.
Cemil Bayik is one of the PKK’s founders and currently a party leader at the base. He denies that his fighters are using the Iraqi Kurdish region as a launching pad for attacks against Turkey.
"We have not attacked, and we have not decided to declare war, and we are abiding by the cease-fire. We are now in a legitimate phase of protecting ourselves. If the Turkish government broadens its attacks we will also extend our self-protection,” Bayik said.
Bayik added, “Turkey cannot prevent us from going to the Kurdish cities on the Turkish side [of the border], because Kurds are also present in the Turkish cities. And if they prevent us, that would lead to an increase in the number of operations inside Turkey.”
Bayik says that the toughened security regime on the Turkish side of the border is related to the upcoming elections in Turkey. He dismisses the idea that even a large-scale military operation across the border could hurt the PKK leadership or activities. On the other hand, the military escalation is seen by Bayik as unwanted by his group because it may influence the election results in Turkey by giving an upper hand to supporters of the army.
The PKK has had bases on Qindil Mountain since 1985. This vast area, which is difficult to access, has a long history of providing refuge for armed Kurds. The PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and Turkey, is attempting to secure the independence of the Kurdish-majority southeastern Anatolia region.
An 'Unjustified' Threat
Authorities in Iraq's Kurdish region have their own concerns about the presence of PKK in the mountainous border area.
Adnan Al-Mufti, a speaker of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Assembly, told Radio Free Iraq that Turkish threats of military operations against the PKK fighters on Iraqi territory are unjustified and only complicate the problems of Iraqis.
“We are busy trying to overcome many problems, with terrorism topping the list. Any Turkish military interference will add to the Iraqi people’s problems and complicate the Iraqi issue. We hope that Turkey will be supportive of the Iraqi people in solving their problems, and not the opposite," Al-Mufti said. He added that an incursion would harm prospects for stability in the region.
Instead, he said, there is a need to deal with the Kurdish issue in Turkey through dialogue and negotiations, without resorting to a military solution.
“We believe that resorting to arms and force was never useful in the past, or at present, and will not be useful in the future. In the end, if there is a political issue, it needs to be solved through diplomatic and peaceful means, and through dialogue," Al-Mufti said.
The regional parliament speaker praises the position of Turkish leaders who are opposed to using military solutions against the fighters of the PKK inside Iraqi territory.
Jabbar Yawar, the deputy peshmerga minister of the Kurdistan government and the spokesman for the peshmerga, told Radio Free Iraq that any foreign military operation on Iraqi territory, including in the Kurdistan region, falls under the authority of Iraq's federal government.
In the event of a military operation, he said, “the defense of these borders is primarily the responsibility of the Iraqi federal government forces, as it is the responsibility of the multinational forces that are charged, in accordance with an international resolution, with protecting all of Iraq, including the Kurdistan region.”
Yawar adds that peshmerga forces will play a supporting role to the Iraqi government and multinational forces in case of an incursion.
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