SIDIKAN and IRBIL, northern Iraq – The United States-led war in Iraq has hardly affected the residents of Sidikan, a small Kurdish town nestled in the mountains where the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey converge, but the surrounding area has fast become the frontline of another conflict.
In recent weeks, residents say, Iranian artillery shells have been heard almost daily, raining down on the nearby hills where anti-Tehran guerrillas of the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) are based on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border. Since August, thousands of Kurdish villagers on the Iraqi side of the frontier have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the barrage.
“Iran is creating a lot of problems for the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG],” said the chief of security police in the nearby town of Soran, who only revealed his first name, Gafar. “Border areas are being shelled every day.” The KRG is the governing authority of the predominantly Kurdish region of northern Iraq, or Iraqi Kurdistan.
Seeking permission from his office to enter PJAK-controlled areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, Gafar told this correspondent that an executive order had been given at the beginning of November to forbid anybody going into such areas. This was followed by an official order announced on November 19 by the KRG banning journalists from traveling to bases of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), also in Iraqi Kurdistan, prompting strong criticism from media watchdogs such as Reporters Without Borders.
“Kurdistan is one of few regions in Iraq where local and foreign journalists can move about freely without constant risk to their lives,” the group said in a statement on November 20. “This ban is a serious violation of their ability to report on the clashes in Iraq between the PKK’s fighters and the Turkish army.”
While the PKK has been in the international spotlight in recent weeks, with Turkey mounting cross-border raids and threatening to launch an invasion of Iraq, not so much attention has been given to the Iranian offshoot, the PJAK. The group has been waging an insurgency against Tehran since 2004, which recently has escalated. A guerrilla leader told the New York Times last month that PJAK fighters had killed at least 150 Iranian soldiers and officials in Iran since August.
Iran accuses Washington of backing the group, and while the US denies this, local and foreign intelligence sources say the accusation is most likely true. According to a former US Special Forces (SF) commando currently based in Iraq who spoke on condition of anonymity, Special Forces troops are currently operating inside Iran, working with insurgent forces like the PJAK. “That’s what the SF does,” he said. “They train and build up indigenous anti-government forces.”
“The primary function of the Special Forces is to stand up guerrilla forces or counter-guerrilla forces,” said another former SF soldier, retired Major Mark Smith. While he was not specifically aware of SF teams training the PJAK, he said it would not be surprising if they were. And “they would be training in an obscure border area or in a location denied to anyone not directly involved”, he said.
He added that SF teams in Iran would be conducting strategic reconnaissance of possible nuclear and biological weapons sites, army headquarters, and significant individuals. “If they’re not doing these things in Iran, then they are remiss in their duties at the upper echelons of their command,” he said.
Operatives of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have also been spotted in Iraqi Kurdistan recently, according to sources familiar with the agency, including the former SF commando. These sources explained that the agency’s Special Activities Division (SAD) would be conducting the main component of the agency’s operations in the area. SAD, whose existence became known in the autumn of 2001, is responsible for covert paramilitary operations – those with which the US government does not want to be overtly associated.
During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, a SAD operative, Johnny Michael Spann, was the first American casualty of the war. Their unofficial motto is: “Admit nothing, deny everything, and make counter accusations.”
When asked if CIA operatives were working in the border areas of the Sidikan region, police chief Gafar replied with a smile: “I am allowed to say no, but I am not allowed to say yes.”
With or without US support, the PJAK poses a direct challenge to Iran’s security. Claiming to have over 4,000 members, it is one of the largest – if not the largest – opposition group in the country. Expert in hit-and-run tactics, PJAK has proven to be a formidable force, launching daring raids and even shooting down an Iranian helicopter in September, according to the New York Times.
PJAK leaders claim to be receiving a steady flow of recruits from Iran’s 3.7 million Kurds, who complain of cultural discrimination and of being economically depressed, despite inhabiting oil-rich lands.
Unlike its PKK cousins, the PJAK is not fighting for an independent Kurdish homeland. Rather, it is fighting for regime change – to replace Iran’s theocracy with a democratic and highly federalized system that would grant autonomous rights not only to Kurds, but also to Azeri, Baloch and Arab regions of the country.
A major component of its struggle is to empower the Iranian population – and in particular women. According to the group’s charter, 12 of the 21 members of the PJAK’s elected legislature must be women, as well as three of the seven members of the leadership council. In addition, leaders say 45% of the group are women.
Although the PJAK is administratively, militarily and politically separate from the PKK, the two groups have strong ties and share allegiance to Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader imprisoned in Turkey. PJAK bases are also located within PKK-controlled areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, making the former susceptible to both Turkish military might and policies of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
As the KRG is delicately trying to please the Turks by cutting off links with the PKK (listed as a terrorist group by the United States and Turkey), the PJAK is feeling the heat as well because of its proximity, both geographically and politically, to the PKK. A PJAK representative in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, refused to be interviewed for this article, saying the group’s Irbil office had been shut down at the beginning of November and that he had been instructed by his leadership not to talk to anybody and to keep a low profile until further notice.
Sources in Irbil also said government checkpoints were refusing to allow wounded PJAK guerrillas from entering its territory to seek medical treatment, which until recently was standard procedure.
But with likely support from the United States and the possibility of a US-led strike on Iran, these temporary constraints appear mere hiccups in an otherwise healthy geopolitical environment for the guerilla group. The PJAK seems destined for anything but demise.
As for the residents of Sidikan, who are within striking distance of both the Turkish and Iranian militaries, their future may not be as bright.