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PKK Fighters Remain On Guard In Iraq As Peace Process Inches Forward

PKK Fighters Move Into Northern Iraq
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WATCH: The first group of 15 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters from southeastern Turkey arrived in northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on May 14 as part of a peace process agreed between the Turkish government and the group's jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Some 2,000 PKK fighters are meant to make the journey in the next four months. (RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq)

QANDIL MOUNTAINS, Iraq -- Jigar is a 40-year-old Turkish Kurd who battled government forces in Turkey for a decade as a militant in the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

After a seven-day march over the mountains, Jigar crossed into Iraq's Kurdistan region on May 14 along with 14 other PKK rebels -- the first group of Kurdish fighters to withdraw from Turkey under a peace process agreed with the Turkish government.

"We hope the way to peace will never be blocked and will stay forever open," he says.

Some 2,000 PKK fighters now in Turkey have been ordered by their jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to make the arduous trek to northern Iraq.

Ocalan's nascent peace deal with Ankara calls for them to join up to 4,000 other militants at the PKK bases in northern Iraq.

PKK field commander Murat Karayilan passed the order along to the rebels in southeastern Turkey after receiving a letter from Ocalan, who has been negotiating with Ankara from his Turkish prison cell.

The withdrawal is the biggest step yet in an effort to end a conflict that has lasted nearly three decades and left 40,000 people dead – most of them Kurds.

Iraqi Limbo

But what do the militants plan to do after arriving in northern Iraq?

Ocalan’s letter specifies they shouldn’t disarm until "the Kurds’ existence, freedom, and security are guaranteed legally and constitutionally" by Ankara.

He also has called for peace conferences in Europe, Ankara and Diyarbakir in Turkey, and Irbil in northern Iraq to hammer out details of a permanent peace.
Jigar (one name), commander of the first group of withdrawing PKK fighters arriving in northern Iraq from Turkey, talks to reporters on May 14.
Jigar (one name), commander of the first group of withdrawing PKK fighters arriving in northern Iraq from Turkey, talks to reporters on May 14.

The Iraqi central government has protested the fighters' movement into northern Iraq, but Baghdad has no direct control over the autonomous Kurdish region.

PKK commanders tell RFE/RL the newly arriving militants will settle in -- for now -- at two bases in northern Iraq.

One is the PKK’s logistics base high in the Qandil Mountains, just south of where the borders of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran meet.

With brick-and-wood structures covered by camouflage nets, that base has a field hospital, barracks, storehouses with food and weapons, power generators, and even satellite television.

Rebel commanders say other fighters will go further west to a PKK training base – a stronghold in the Zab region, which was temporarily seized by Turkish forces during an eight-day incursion in February 2008.

At The Ready

Ruhat is an Iraq-based leader of the PKK’s military wing -- the so-called People’s Forces of Defense (HPG).

He says it is too early to discuss disarmament or reintegration programs that prepare PKK fighters for civilian life.

"Here they are going to get training to be ready for any assignment that is given to them later," Ruhat says. "We are waiting for the Turkish government to demonstrate to us, at the beginning, that they have good will in the peace process. They should give the Kurdish people [in Turkey] their rights and the right to speak their own language."
Acting PKK military commander Murat Karayilan in front of an image of rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan
Acting PKK military commander Murat Karayilan in front of an image of rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan

PKK spokesman Ahmed Deniz says they also want Turkish authorities to release Ocalan from prison after the four-month withdrawal is complete.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed that retreating rebels "will not be touched." He has said "laying down weapons" should be the top priority for the PKK.

But there is precedent for PKK wariness. Turkish forces ambushed the last attempted PKK withdrawal from Turkey in 1999, killing about 500 people and shattering peace efforts.

Welat Afrin, a Syrian PKK fighter who came from Turkey with Jigar, says their group was closely followed by Turkish troops and aircraft during their march.

He says another ambush by Turkish forces would end the peace process.

"We were very tired. There was snow, rain, a very high mountain to cross over, and it was a long-distance march," Afrin says. "We came according to the orders of our leader [Ocalan] without any hesitation. Our group has implemented this decision successfully. We will continue to support this decision if the Turkish state doesn’t make mistakes against us again. We will support this decision to the end.”

Regional Angst

The withdrawal from Turkey has raised the prospects that rebels could join the armed branches of the PKK's sister parties in Iran and Syria.

Tehran is concerned they will join Iran's Kurdish militants in the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK).

In Kurdish areas of Syria, fighters in the Democratic Union Party (PYD) are battling President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Jigar says rank-and-file PKK fighters will do whatever they are told by Ocalan, whom they call "Apo."

"Our leader Apo's initiative is an order for us and all of the HPG fighters are operating under this order," Jigar says. "We can say that the decisions and initiatives of Apo are considered binding orders to us and everyone should know that."

The PKK has abandoned its original demands for an independent homeland and instead is settling for expanded political and cultural rights for Turkey's 17 million Kurds.

Some PKK fighters in northern Iraq now are telling RFE/RL their dream is a permanent settlement that allows them to live a peaceful life in Turkey.

Since PKK fighters -- both men and women -- are not allowed to have children or get married, a permanent settlement would allow them to settle down and raise families.

Some say that if their demands for cultural and legal rights are met, they would welcome the idea of becoming integrated with Turkey's state institutions -- including Turkey's security forces.

Written by Ron Synovitz based on reporting by Radio Free Iraq correspondents Abdul Hamid Zibari in the Qandil Mountains and Simira Balay in Prague

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