http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/10/17/pkk-s-rise-in-iraqikurdistan.html

Separatist group’s growing popularity leaves Iraqi Kurdistan government in awkward position

PKK, Kurdistan

Members of the PKK wait to greet the body of a slain Iraqi Kurdish PKK fighter on the road from Erbil.
Ayman Oghanna for Al Jazeera America

ERBIL, Iraq — The body of Zanyar Kawa is making its final journey to Sulaymaniyah, in northeastern Iraq. The slain fighter died 500 miles from his hometown battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, in Kobane, a Syrian town near the Turkish border.

Though an Iraqi Kurd, Kawa did not die serving the Iraqi Kurdish security forces, known as the peshmerga. Rather, he was killed fighting alongside guerrillas associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which seeks self-determination for Kurds in Turkey and across the region. Both Turkey and the United States consider the PKK a terrorist organization.

Nearly a hundred people have gathered on a grassy plaza in the city’s center to receive Kawa’s body and accompany it home. PKK flags are flying, along with banners of Abdullah Öcalan, the group’s founder. While most in the crowd are Turkish Kurds who live in exile, there are Iraqi Kurds, too.

In the past, the PKK did not count many Iraqi Kurds among its members, nor was the separatist group a critical player in Kurdistan’s internal affairs. But since ISIL fighters swept through northern Iraq this summer, that has changed. Increasingly, Iraqi Kurds are embracing the PKK fighters as heroes, lauding them for recapturing the northern Iraqi town of Makhmour and its surrounding villages and for rescuing thousands of members of the Yazidi ethnic group who were trapped in nearby Sinjar.

Halkawt Sami, an Iraqi Kurdish carpenter, has come to fulfill what he says is a national duty to welcome his “comrade” home. In August, as ISIL threatened to overtake Erbil, Sami enlisted to fight the extremist group. Like Kawa, he signed up for the PKK, not the peshmerga.

“It was the PKK that came down from the mountains to protect us,” he says, referring to the fighters’ descent from their camp in the Qandil Mountains, along the Iran-Iraq border. Sami says he was among at least 100 new recruits from Erbil who received basic training at the PKK camp.

PKK, Kurdistan

A PKK fighter cleans his weapon after returning from the front line with ISIL near Kirkuk.
Ayman Oghanna for Al Jazeera America

The crowd includes representatives from Turkish and local political parties affiliated with the PKK. Although they are here to receive a fallen fighter, there is an air of triumph. “A new generation has been introduced to the PKK and without a doubt, our popularity has increased,” says Sardar Star, a leader of a local party with ties to the PKK.

When, after nearly two hours, Kawa’s body doesn’t arrive, the telephone call comes: The Kurdistan regional government and its ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, will not allow the corpse of a dead PKK fighter to enter Erbil. Those who want to meet the ambulance will have to go to Bistana, 30 miles away, they are told.

The PKK party representatives are disappointed, but not surprised. “The KDP won’t allow the body to come through here because if it comes, more people will participate, more people will follow us,” says Abid Ilke, the Kurdistan representative of a PKK-affiliated party based in Turkey. “We know their mentality.”

Photos: Inside a PKK training camp in the Qandil Mountains

VIEW FULL GALLERY

Watching warily

The PKK’s newfound popularity in Iraq’s semiautonomous region of Kurdistan has been watched warily by the government here. Not only could the group’s rise upset internal politics; it could also destabilize the region’s relations with other nations. The Kurdistan regional government, or KRG, has long maintained good relations with Turkey, which has for 30 years been locked in a violent struggle with the PKK. Just this week, Turkey bombed PKK-affiliated forces in the country’s south.

The relationship between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, meanwhile, has been a mutually beneficial one, built on strong economic ties. The region’s large Turkoman population also makes it of particular interest to Turkey. There are at least 1,200 Turkish companies in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Trade, and the KRG is Turkey’s second-largest trading partner after Germany. The KRG began operating an oil pipeline this year as part of an effort to prepare for independence from Iraq’s central government. The pipeline terminates at a Turkish port.

“Turkey profited a lot from the KRG; they are a big business partner,” says Thomas Schmidinger, a lecturer at the University of Vienna and secretary general of the Austrian Association for Kurdish Studies. “The KRG is a semicolony of Turkey’s post-Ottoman sphere of influence.”

PKK, Kurdistan

A member of the PKK stands above the graves of recently fallen fighters from Makhmour in the PKK’s cemetery in Qandil.
Ayman Oghanna for Al Jazeera America

And it’s not just Turkey that the KRG has to consider. Germany, for example, has said it will provide weapons to the peshmerga only if the group can guarantee that none will fall into PKK hands, says Helgurd Hikmet Mela Ali, spokesperson for the Ministry of Peshmerga.

KRG leaders are quick to assert that they are not coordinating with the PKK in the fight against ISIL. But they also praise them for their bravery and acknowledge their rising popularity. “We were together at the front lines, and the street wants that,” says Ali. “At the end of the day, they are Kurds.”

The new heroes

On the outskirts of Makhmour, two peshmerga operate a checkpoint alongside two PKK guerrillas.

Since 1994, a refugee camp here run by the PKK has sheltered thousands of Kurds who’ve fled Turkey. When ISIL advanced on Makhmour in early August, PKK fighters evacuated their people to the mountains, secured the camp and then helped liberate the town and its surrounding villages. “Since August 10, we’ve been coordinating,” says one of the young PKK fighters as he checks drivers’ identity cards.

Out of earshot of peshmerga forces, the talk is more frank. “If you want the truth, the peshmerga don’t know how to fight. They’re not organized,” says a 22-year-old Syrian Kurd (who declined to give his name) as he sits in a house where PKK fighters who work at the checkpoint sometimes sleep.

Even before the rise of ISIL, the PKK member says, he had “no job, no school.” He focused only on fighting. “I’m a guerrilla only, until the liberation of Kurdistan,” he says, referring to the PKK’s ambition for a greater Kurdistan that would include parts of what is now Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

‘Before ISIL, we always had some kind of solidarity, but not like now.’

PKK member in Makhmour

Since the liberation of Makhmour, he says, locals have changed how they treat PKK fighters. “They very warmly greet us at the checkpoint, hugging us,” he says. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, including some women, have signed up in the last two months to train with the PKK in the Qandil mountains, fighters say.

A local Kurd, Kamal Karim, even donated the house where the PKK fighters now sleep. “They were protecting us,” says Karim, a plaster factory owner, who sits in the dimly lit, concrete home with the PKK fighters. He exhibits the eagerness of a groupie.

At the camp of Turkish Kurds outside of Makhmour, veteran fighters echo what the young fighters have said. “Before ISIL we always had some kind of solidarity, but not like now,” says one guard, who will only gave his first name, Ahmed. “We have people in Makhmour sending us food and coming to visit. When they see us now, they greet us on the streets. They say, ‘We want you to be on the front lines,’ especially after they saw our fighters in Sinjar. They say they are not scared anymore of ISIL.”

“When I see this support,” says the guerrilla, who has lived in the PKK camp here since the mid-’90s, “I want to cry.”

Since the liberation of Makhmour, he says, locals have changed how they treat PKK fighters. “They very warmly greet us at the checkpoint, hugging us,” he says. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, including some women, have signed up in the last two months to train with the PKK in the Qandil mountains, fighters say.

A local Kurd, Kamal Karim, even donated the house where the PKK fighters now sleep. “They were protecting us,” says Karim, a plaster-factory owner, who sits in the dimly lit, concrete home with the PKK fighters. He exhibits the eagerness of a groupie.

At the camp of Turkish Kurds outside of Makhmour, veteran fighters echo what the young fighters have said. “Before ISIL we always had some kind of solidarity, but not like now,” says one guard, who will only gave his first name, Ahmed. “We have people in Makhmour sending us food and coming to visit. When they see us now, they greet us on the streets. They say, ‘We want you to be on the front lines,’ especially after they saw our fighters in Sinjar. They say they are not scared anymore of ISIL.”

“When I see this support,” says the guerrilla, who has lived in the PKK camp here since the mid-’90s, “I want to cry.”

Since the liberation of Makhmour, he says, locals have changed how they treat PKK fighters. “They very warmly greet us at the checkpoint, hugging us,” he says. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, including some women, have signed up in the last two months to train with the PKK in the Qandil mountains, fighters say.

A local Kurd, Kamal Karim, even donated the house where the PKK fighters now sleep. “They were protecting us,” says Karim, a plaster-factory owner, who sits in the dimly lit, concrete home with the PKK fighters. He exhibits the eagerness of a groupie.

At the camp of Turkish Kurds outside of Makhmour, veteran fighters echo what the young fighters have said. “Before ISIL we always had some kind of solidarity, but not like now,” says one guard, who will only gave his first name, Ahmed. “We have people in Makhmour sending us food and coming to visit. When they see us now, they greet us on the streets. They say, ‘We want you to be on the front lines,’ especially after they saw our fighters in Sinjar. They say they are not scared anymore of ISIL.”

“When I see this support,” says the guerrilla, who has lived in the PKK camp here since the mid-’90s, “I want to cry.”

Since the liberation of Makhmour, he says, locals have changed how they treat PKK fighters. “They very warmly greet us at the checkpoint, hugging us,” he says. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, including some women, have signed up in the last two months to train with the PKK in the Qandil mountains, fighters say.

A local Kurd, Kamal Karim, even donated the house where the PKK fighters now sleep. “They were protecting us,” says Karim, a plaster-factory owner, who sits in the dimly lit, concrete home with the PKK fighters. He exhibits the eagerness of a groupie.

At the camp of Turkish Kurds outside of Makhmour, veteran fighters echo what the young fighters have said. “Before ISIL we always had some kind of solidarity, but not like now,” says one guard, who will only gave his first name, Ahmed. “We have people in Makhmour sending us food and coming to visit. When they see us now, they greet us on the streets. They say, ‘We want you to be on the front lines,’ especially after they saw our fighters in Sinjar. They say they are not scared anymore of ISIL.”

“When I see this support,” says the guerrilla, who has lived in the PKK camp here since the mid-’90s, “I want to cry.”

PKK, Kurdistan

A PKK guerrilla who has recently returned from fighting ISIL near Kirkuk.
Ayman Oghanna for Al Jazeera America

Will PKK’s popularity last?

Iraqi Kurdistan’s internal politics have always been a tale of two parties — the ruling and conservative KDP and the social-democratic Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Now, PKK leaders hope their group can transform its street popularity into political power.

Ilke, of the PKK-affiliated, Turkey-based Peace and Democratic Party (BDP), says KDP policies have exacerbated the gap between rich and poor. “We didn’t come here to establish companies and oil,” he says. “If we can participate in elections, we will win.”

But they face opposition. In May, the KRG’s intelligence agency shut down the Erbil office of the BDP’s sister organization here. Ali Hussein, a peshmerga commander and member of the KDP leadership council, says the PKK-affiliated party is illegal and “has a question mark on it in terms of terrorism in the international community.”

“We have sympathy for the Kurdish issue in other countries, but we are more concerned about international law and our allies,” he says. “We have to be concerned that they don’t take here as a base to attack other countries.”

That’s also why the body of Kawa, the fighter, could not enter Erbil, says Hussein. “We don’t want to allow demonstrations of support of illegal parties not permitted by government.”

The PKK won’t be able to convert street popularity into electoral relevance, Hussein says. Kurds in Turkey face restrictions on their language, culture and political activity. But in Iraqi Kurdistan, he says, “We have freedom here, we have space for young people to participate in institutions.”

Kurdistan, PKK

PKK officials hope they can transform their battlefield success into political power. 
Ayman Oghanna for Al Jazeera America

Emel Elif Tugdar, an assistant professor at the University of Kurdistan who studies ethno-politics in the region, agrees. “People here are wealthy,” she says, and don’t share the party’s Marxist-Leninist principles. “Joining the PKK, they would have too much to lose.”

The PKK’s rule in Syria, meanwhile, has caused disillusionment. The group’s Syrian affiliate seized control of eastern towns when the country’s army withdrew in 2012. At first, the PKK fighters were seen as too friendly to the regime of Bashar al-Assad; later, residents accused them of attacking Kurdish demonstrators, kidnapping members of Kurdish opposition parties and stifling dissent.

“They collaborated with the Syrian regime initially,” says a lawyer from the Syrian town of Qamishli who fled for Erbil in 2012. When he spoke out against the same cronyism and repression for which he’d criticized Assad’s regime, the lawyer says, “I went from being a hero to a traitor.” He estimates that at least 30 percent of Syrian Kurds in Erbil left because they feared PKK rule.

Another refugee from Qamishli, a college student who left last year, says her sister was threatened with death for criticizing the PKK. The woman, who declined to give her name, says the group’s popularity here will be short-lived. “The PKK will reveal themselves.”

Ilke of the BDP shrugs off these comments. “It’s true,” he says, “but we don’t want everyone to love us.”

A martyr

PKK, Kurdistan

Members of the PKK drive in a funeral procession for a slain Iraqi Kurdish PKK fighter on the road from Erbil.
Ayman Oghanna for Al Jazeera America

After a winding, hourlong climb from Erbil to Bistana, the shrunken convoy that has come to receive Kawa’s body pulls over at a road stop, the agreed-upon meeting point. PKK supporters mill around, buying potato chips, chocolate bars and ice cream. They sit at plastic tables, a scenic mountain backdrop behind them, and talk about the situation in Kobane.

Kawa’s uncle, Shaho Tawfiq, and another relative have also arrived, from Sulaymaniyah. Kawa’s mother awaits the body at home. Kawa’s father, who is making the pilgrimage to Mecca, has not yet been told of his son’s death. In Bistana, the family does not mingle with the PKK supporters.

Tawfiq describes his nephew as a young man who lost his way and fell in with the wrong crowd, the PKK. One day, the uncle says, Kawa casually said goodbye to his mother and left the house with his gym bag. She assumed he was going to play soccer, but he never returned.

Kawa trained in the Qandil Mountains and helped fight ISIL at Sinjar this summer. Two months ago, he called his uncle, addressing him in the Kurdish dialect spoken in Turkey and Syria. Recalls Tawfiq, “He said he was very happy and that he wouldn’t come back until ‘I liberate Kurdistan.’ ”

‘They are using him to raise their flag.’

Shaho Tawfiq

uncle of a slain PKK fighter

When Kawa called again, he told his family he had returned to Qandil. Kawa’s mother visited, asking to see her son, but the camp’s guards wouldn’t permit her entry, says Tawfiq. Then, last month, she went to the Makhmour camp after hearing her son was there, hoping to at least catch a glimpse of him. Again, she was turned away.

“It looked like he wanted to see his death,” says Tawfiq, whose demeanor belies the almost festive appearance of the outing. Of the gathering that has come to await Kawa’s body, he says, “We feel they are using him to raise their flag.”

Despite the family’s opposition to the PKK, Tawfiq says they are still proud of Kawa. “He was killed for this land, not for money or for a car.” He is relieved, Tawfiq says, that there is an intact body returning, “not in pieces, not beheaded.”

Within the hour, the sound of the ambulance’s sirens can be heard in the distance. The PKK supporters and Kawa’s relatives run to the side of the road. Tawfiq’s chest begins to heave. Many in the crowd wave their flags and shout, “Namri, Shaheed” — eternal, martyr.

As the ambulance approaches, Tawfiq sees a poster of his nephew’s image taped to the front of the vehicle and collapses onto the hood of his car, sobbing. He waits for the ambulance to stop, but it speeds by him, and the convoy’s drivers run to start their cars and follow it. There are still more than 80 miles of mountain road until they get to Sulaymaniyah.

Sami, the carpenter-turned-fighter who has made the drive from Erbil and is watching this, says, “Long life to the PKK, the PUK, the peshmerga. I’m ready to go any distance, anywhere.”

Salar Salim and Ayman Oghanna contributed reporting to this story.

Advertisements