Kurdish rebels are thriving, despite calls to contain them

October 29, 2007|By New York Times News Service

RANIYA, Iraq -- A low-slung concrete building off a steep mountain road marks the beginning of rebel territory in this remote corner of northern Iraq.

The fighters based here, Kurdish militants fighting Turkey, fly their own flag, and despite urgent international calls to curb them, they operate freely, receiving supplies in old pickup trucks less than 10 miles from a government checkpoint.

"Our condition is good," said one fighter.

A giant face of the rebels' leader - Abdullah Ocalan, now in a Turkish prison - has been painted on a nearby slope.

The rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, is at the center of a crisis between Turkey and Iraq that began when the group's fighters killed 12 Turkish soldiers last Sunday, prompting Turkey, a NATO member, to threaten an invasion.

In response, the United States put intense pressure on Iraq's Kurdish leaders who control the northern area where the rebels hide, with a senior State Department official delivering a rare rebuke last week over their "lack of action" in curbing the PKK.

But even with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scheduled to visit Istanbul this week, Kurdish political leaders seemed in no hurry to act.

An all-out battle is out of the question, they argue, as the rugged terrain makes it impossible to dislodge them.

"Closing the camps means war and fighting," said Azad Jindyany, a senior Kurdish official in Sulaimaniya, the region's capital. "We don't have the army to do that. We did it in the past, and we failed."

But even logistical flows remain uninterrupted, despite the fact that Iraqi Kurdish leaders have some of the most precise and extensive intelligence networks in the country.

The Kurdish fighters are in the middle of a vast and complex web of relationships and ambitions that began with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

As the war has worsened, the United States has come to depend increasingly on the Kurds as partners in running Iraq, and as overseers of the one part of the country where some of their original aspirations are actually being met. Iraqi Kurdish officials for their part appear to be politely ignoring American calls for action, saying the only serious solution is political, not military. They have taken their own path, allowing the guerrillas to exist on their territory, while at the same time quietly trying to persuade them to stop attacks.

The situation poses a puzzle to the United States, which badly wants to avert a new front in the war, but finds itself forced to choose between two trusted allies - Turkey, a NATO member whose territory is the transit area for most of its air cargo to Iraq, and the Kurds, their closest partners in Iraq.

The United States "is like a man with two wives," said one Iraqi Kurd in Sulaimaniya, the regional capital. "They quarrel, but he doesn't want to lose either of them."

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