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Iraqi Kurds Prepare for Possible Turkish Invasion

A Turkish army cobra helicopter flies over PKK camps on Cudi Mountain in the Turkey-Iraq border area. For weeks, Turkey has been threatening to launch military operations into neighboring Iraq.
Burak Kara
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Getty Images
A Turkish army cobra helicopter flies over PKK camps on Cudi Mountain in the Turkey-Iraq border area. For weeks, Turkey has been threatening to launch military operations into neighboring Iraq.
Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters train in northern Iraq, around 10 miles from the Turkish border. Turks are demanding that the Iraqi Kurds rein in PKK guerillas.
Mustafa Ozer / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters train in northern Iraq, around 10 miles from the Turkish border. Turks are demanding that the Iraqi Kurds rein in PKK guerillas.
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani at a recent  press conference. Barzani's chief of staff says the leader will not give in to Turkish demands to extradite PKK leaders.
Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani at a recent press conference. Barzani's chief of staff says the leader will not give in to Turkish demands to extradite PKK leaders.

Turkey has been beating the war drums for weeks, threatening to launch military operations into neighboring Iraq.

The operation would attack rebels from the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, hiding in the mountains along the border.

The Turks are demanding that the Iraqi Kurds, who control northern Iraq, rein in the PKK guerillas who have staged cross-border raids into Turkey.

Top officials in the Kurdistan regional government accuse the Turks of using the PKK as a pretext to attack the Iraqi Kurds. The Turks fear that the emergence of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq could inspire Turkey's own Kurdish minority.

Eeriness Along the Border

The village of Kashane lies in a deep-mountain gorge between the last Iraqi Kurdish security checkpoint and the border with Turkey.

This week, it was mostly deserted. Most of the locals fled after days and nights of Turkish artillery strikes in the hills nearby.

The once-popular picnic grounds and orchards near a fast rushing river were eerily abandoned.

At the grounds on Monday, a handful of Kurdish PKK rebels, dressed in olive green combat fatigues, gathered wood by the river.

When a visitor approached, two armed fighters appeared in a pick-up truck, loaded with firewood.

These PKK rebels wouldn't give their names, but their accents identified them as Kurds from Turkey. They said they are fighting for the cultural and political rights of Turkey's long-oppressed Kurdish minority.

"We are not afraid of Turkish soldiers and tanks," one fighter said. He pointed at the steep mountains that cast a shadow over the valley and added, "Those are our tanks."

Iraqi Kurds Caught in the Middle

Iraqi Kurds have mixed feelings about the PKK.

Apple farmer Husein Kashane complained that one time the rebels forced locals out of the valley and then stole their crops and produce.

But, he added, he is much more afraid of nearby Turkey.

"To be quite honest with you, Turkey hates all the Kurdish people — whether they are PKK or not PKK," Kashane said. "They all hate Kurds."

Fouad Hussein, the chief of staff for Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, thinks that the Turks are using the PKK as a pretext to attack the Kurds.

"The PKK is not the target. The target is Kurdistan regional government," Hussein said.

Iraqi Kurds and the PKK

In the 1990s, Barzani's men fought side by side with the Turks in northern Iraq against the PKK, but today, Barzani has become a hated figure in Turkey. Ankara refuses to officially recognize his administration.

"They don't recognize us. They don't want to talk with us, but they are asking us to fight for them," Hussein says. "How is it possible?"

Hussein said Barzani will not give in to Turkish demands to extradite PKK leaders.

"They want to push us to fight another Kurdish group, so there will be internal fighting between the Kurds," Hussein said. "And that means, actually, the experience in Kurdistan will disappear and will be destroyed — will be destroyed by the Kurds, through the Kurds and killing the Kurds."

The Iraqi Kurds deny Turkish claims that they are providing logistical, material and moral support to the PKK.

They also argue that it is futile to try to dislodge the PKK's battle-hardened guerillas from their mountain hideouts. They say hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqi Kurds died trying to do just this during the '90s.

Iraqi Kurdistan Prepares for an Invasion

Kurdistan Regional Assembly Speaker Adnan al-Mufti says the only solution is dialogue between the Turks and the PKK.

"We ask PKK to not only announce [a] ceasefire," al-Mufti said. "To announce this [cease]fire without condition, and to follow it forever."

While claiming he has no control over the PKK in northern Iraq, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has, at the same time, warned that if the Turks launched a cross-border invasion, his men would fight back. He added ominously that the conflict could have ripple effects among Turkey's own Kurdish minority.

On Monday, truckloads of helmeted Iraqi Kurdish fighters rolled through the border town of Zakho — within sight of Turkey. One Iraqi Kurdish official said this was aimed at raising the Kurdish security presence along the border.

Iraqi Kurds living within earshot of the frequent Turkish cross-border artillery barrages have adopted a fatalistic approach to the crisis.

Teashop owner Abdullah Mohamed Ali says his house was destroyed twice in the '90s during Turkish incursions against the PKK. He says he's not afraid of another Turkish invasion.

"They have tanks and planes, and we have God who can protect us," Ali said. "We have been living here for 50 years. We're not going to hand it over so easily."

With neither side willing to compromise, Turkish and Kurdish nationalism appears to be on a collision course in the mountains in northern Iraq.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.