Kurdish women fighters, in Syria, in front of photo of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan
Kurdish women fighters, in Syria, in front of photo of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan | YPG website, the commons

Iraq still a safe haven for Kurdish Party Labeled as Terrorist

Two deadly vehicle bombings Aug. 18 in Turkey killed 10 policemen, injured more than 300 and refocused attention on a little-understood insurgency with a growing footprint in Iraq.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the incidents were certainly the work of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has carried out dozens of attacks on police and military posts since 2015 in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeastern provinces.
 
With thousands of affiliated Kurdish soldiers in Iraq (and many more in Turkey), the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and NATO, yet operates openly in dozens of Iraqi towns and reportedly controls hundreds of villages in northern Iraq.
 
On the one hand, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is said to be allied with the government of Turkey, the KRG’s chief trading partner. On the other, the PKK recruits and trains personnel freely in KRG territory and today is at war with ethnic rivals of the Kurds as well as ISIS. It is among the most problematic of the 140 unauthorized militias fighting the terrorists of the Black Flag.
 
The PKK says it should be relieved of the terrorist designation, and its defenders are many, including philosopher and journalist Bernard-Henri Levy.

“The new PKK is the organization that, particularly through its forces fighting in Syria under the banner of the YPG (People’s Protection Units), is on the front line in the battle against the dark caliphate of the Islamic State,” Levy argued in 2014.

He said the PKK has renounced hard-line Marxism and recognizes "a level of gender equality, a respect for secularism and minorities, and a modern, moderate, and ecumenical conception of Islam that are, to say the least, rare in the region."

Others disagree.  “It is a terrorist organization in that it uses terrorist tactics against non-security targets,” James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, wrote in an email to AMI Newswire.

The PKK's leadership has claimed the group has 2,500 fighters in Iraq and approximately 5,500 in Turkey. High estimates put the number of active PKK fighters at 10,000. The PKK has “several thousand” in Iraq, according to Jeffrey.

The PKK’s Iraqi footprint covers more than 650 villages in Kurdistan, including 361 in the Dohuk governorate in the northwest corner of the KRG, according to Botan Hussein, the mayor of the town of Zakho.
 
“The area where the PKK is the biggest problem is in Sinjar, where it has attempted to take over the police station and where it brings Yezidi youth to be trained as Marxist, PKK fighters,” a top KRG official said recently, asking anonymity.
 
“They (the PKK) have had a significant military force in Iraq since the early 1990s and some of their people were deployed to Sinjar and were instrumental in saving many Yezidi people from being killed by ISIS" when the terrorist group attacked two years ago, Jeffrey said. “They are a communist-type group and have a very authoritarian structure.” 

Unlike all other armies in the region, the PKK puts women with rifles in the front lines. PKK female fighting units, dubbed “Guerilla Fighters,” met with a delegation of Syrian Kurdish officials of the PKK-allied government in northern Syria at the PKK local headquarters in Kirkuk Aug. 2, according to Roj News.

Founded by Abdullah Ocalan, a charismatic leader in 1978 who envisioned a Kurdish Marxist-Leninist state, the PKK initially aspired to forge an independent nation for the 30 million Kurds, the largest stateless ethnic group in the world. Since his capture by the Turkish military and imprisonment in 1999, Ocalan reportedly has abandoned Marxist-Leninist philosophy and advocates a new political platform while ceasing his calls for the establishment of a fully independent country. Observers in the region still characterize the PKK as Marxist.
 
 The PKK has waged a bloody guerrilla war against the Turkish state since 1984. More than 13,000 Turkish soldiers, and more than 22,000 Kurdish rebels have died in this bitter struggle.

Kurdish legislators have frequently complained that the PKK “kidnaps” teenagers, including Yezidi boys in the displacement camps and indoctrinates them at its training camps.

“The PKK has established several organizations under different names and uses them for its political activities in Kurdistan region,” according to Nazim Kabir, deputy chairman of the KRG security committee, speaking to a Kurdish reporter Tuesday. “The PKK has manipulated some children and sent them to its training camps in the Qandil Mountains.”

Although chiefly known as enemies of the Turkish military, the PKK units are occupying territory 170 miles south of Iraq’s border with Turkey and fighting Shia militia allied with Baghdad as well as ISIS, according to Dr. Ali Al-Bayati, head of the Turkmen Rescue Foundation in Baghdad. A clash between Turkmen and Peshmerga fighters claimed the lives of 40 Turkmen and six Peshmerga April 23.

 The PKK are clearly welcome to operate in Iraq and are helping the Kurdish parties claim and hold disputed territories on Kurdistan's expanding southern flank, according to Iraqi observers AMI Newswire has interviewed.
 
“Kirkuk’s governor, Dr. Najmadin Karim has close ties with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leadership and has used his authority to advance the PUK agenda with the Iraqi government and with the Iranian government through the popular mobilization units,” according to Kurdish-born Hemin Qazi, a former contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense who has  deep roots in the region.
 
“Peshmerga forces ...  are at the forefront of fighting ISIS and defending Kurdish (disputed) borders,” said Qazi. Since the Peshmerga regained control of Kirkuk from ISIS in 2014, the city has become a de facto extension of the Kurdish Regional Government.

Peshmerga commanders that AMI Newswire has spoken to insist the Kurdish political perimeter soon will include  Tuz Khurmatu and the hundreds of villages in between that city and Kirkuk, although this assessment is disputed. Tuz Khurmatu, which is about 50 miles south of Kirkuk and 90 miles north of Baghdad, is multi-ethnic. Its citizens include a majority of Shia Turkmen together with Sunni Turkmen, Arabs, and Kurds.
 
The Shia Turkmen have claimed that the Kurdish armed groups seek to move the Arabs and Turkmen out of the territory to be claimed for greater Kurdistan.
  
“The aim of the PKK and PUK is to change the demography of northern Iraq. New maps will be drawn by these armed militias, MP Ershad Al-Salihi, a Turkman leader, said in an interview. "The clashes between armed groups in Tuz may cause problems for the government of Iraq and the United States. After ISIS is defeated, there will be a bigger war between the PKK and Turkmen,” Al-Salihi predicted.