I was somewhat surprised this morning when I saw reports that Iranian and Turkish forces were massing on the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iranians were shelling PKK bases there:
Turkey and Iran have dispatched tanks, artillery and thousands of troops to their frontiers with Iraq during the past few weeks in what appears to be a coordinated effort to disrupt the activities of Kurdish rebel bases.
Scores of Kurds have fled their homes in the northern frontier region after four days of shelling by the Iranian army. Local officials said Turkey had also fired a number of shells into Iraqi territory.
Some displaced families have pitched tents in the valleys behind Qandil Mountain, which straddles Iraq’s rugged borders with Turkey and Iran. They told the Guardian yesterday that at least six villages had been abandoned and one person had died following a sustained artillery barrage by Iranian forces that appeared designed to flush out guerrillas linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who have hideouts in Iraq.
I wasn’t surprised by the shelling—I was surprised by the reports.
There have been reports of incursions by Iranian forces into Iraq (and, I believe, Turkish forces as well) in pursuit of Kurdish rebels for years. Reports of Iranian shelling of PKK bases began in May. Here’s a sample story from April 30th:
“Iranian forces hit a border area called Haj Omran and then entered 5km (3 miles) into Iraqi territory and hit the area of Lollan with heavy artillery with 180 shells targeting PKK positions,” an Iraqi defense ministry statement said.
The shelling was the second attack on the Kurdish guerrillas by Iranian forces in 10 days. The previous attack on April 20 killed two guerrillas dead and wounded 10.
The Kurdish rebel group, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has dug in in Iraq’s northern Kurdish-controlled area on the border with Iran and Turkey, have warned Iran not to interfere in its fight against Turkish rule in the southeast of the country.
For around a year, Iran has been battling border infiltrations by a group called Pejak, which Tehran says is linked to the PKK.
I seem to recall commenting on this at the time but the story sank like a stone.
Here’s a decent backgrounder on the PKK. There are some similarities between the position of the PKK in northern Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon: they’re both terrorist organization with close ties to the rest of the local population that make border incursions against neighboring states.
There are important differences, however. The PKK is a nationalist organization with Marxist roots (they say they’ve abandoned those). Their stated objective is an independent Kurdish state not the destruction of the states of Iran or Turkey.
As best as I’ve been able to determine the PKK doesn’t have state funding:
The sources of PKK financing is a highly controversial subject. The PKK claims that most of its funds are from contributions, both from Kurds within Turkey and, especially, from those abroad. The Turkish gov- ernment claims that the bulk of PKK funds come from burglaries and robberies (especially true in its early days), from extortion and protection money levied on Kurds and Turks wherever possible, and especially from a massive narcotics trade between Turkey and Europe. Other analysts also add the factor of PKK small and medium business investments as a source of income.
It is very difficult for the outside analyst to judge the extent of the accuracy of these two claims. In fact, it appears that there are some elements of truth to both accounts. Considerable numbers of Kurds speak of ‘‘taxation’’ levied by the PKK upon Kurds all over Turkey, and there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that points to the PKK’s effectiveness in extorting funds from all kinds of businesses, Kurdish—and Turkish, where possible. The PKK itself admits that it is able to gain funds by collecting customs taxes at the border from incoming trucks (including smugglers), an activity conducted also by the main Iraqi Kurdish groups. Income can also be seized from ‘‘collaborative landlords.’’
Another important source of revenue is the large Kurdish population living in Western Europe. Numbering as many as 500,000, Kurds in Europe have contributed generously to the PKK. These funds are used not only to support the organization’s activities in Europe but also to purchase arms. Just as in Turkey, some of these funds are raised from willing contributors, who donate as much as 20 percent of their salaries, while other funds are raised forcibly. There is no doubt that many Kurds contribute quite willingly to the PKK cause, but most of them would probably prefer not to be taxed, even if they show some support for the cause. Reports of intimidation and demand for protection money are frequent.
In recent months some in this country have proposed a U. S. troop withdrawal into the northern, Kurdish provinces of Iraq as an approach to the “over the horizon” force that Congressional Democrats have supported. This story would appear to highlight how destabilizing this could be. If U. S. forces stationed in Iraq take disarming the PKK as an objective they’ll merely be exchanging one set of problems for another. If they don’t, the PKK will continue their activities in neighboring Turkey and Iran (and possibly elsewhere, too). While we may relish the discomfiting of the Iranians, I think we should be chary of PKK destabilization of the pivotal state of Turkey.
James Joyner has a small round-up of blogospheric and media reaction. He notes:
Obviously, this could be a messy situation. It’s interesting that this has been going on four days and this is the first I’ve heard about it. Then again, sporadic shooting across the ephemeral borders of “Kurdistan” is rather commonplace.