By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 13, 2007
RANIYAH, Iraq -- They have made camp below the mountainsides that smolder and smoke in the thin alpine air. They live in caves now, or old tents, or under goat-hair tarps, and sleep on woven rugs over a bed of stones. Their villages are empty of all but ducks and chickens, because the villagers will not hike back until they can no longer hear the sounds.
"Do you hear that?" asked Taban Koha Rasheed, over a deep, distant rumbling, as she knelt under her tarp in a creek bed sheltered by the walls of a steep ravine. "It's started again."
For four weeks now, Kurdish villagers in this far northeastern corner of Iraq have endured a punishing barrage of rockets and artillery shells from what they say are Iranian troops across the border. The seemingly indiscriminate shelling has burned acres of orchards and grassland, damaged homes, killed livestock and driven about 2,500 people to abandon about two dozen villages.
The attacks are an ominous reminder that the emergence of an increasingly self-sufficient Kurdish region in northern Iraq could provoke reprisals or even invasions by Iran and Turkey.
"This is the worst bombing that this area has ever seen," said Ibrahim Muhammed Amin Muhammed Sor, a 37-year-old Kurdish chicken farmer.
For a few days in August, Sor endured the barrage. These rugged mountain dwellers are accustomed to violence: The area was shelled repeatedly during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s.
In more recent years, neighbors Iran and Turkey have staged sporadic attacks in an attempt to drive out Kurdish separatist guerrillas who reside in the hills. The attacks grew more intense beginning Aug. 16, and one night, leaflets floated down onto Sor's farm.
"The Islamic state of Iran sends its greetings," began the letter, written in a Kurdish dialect called Sorani. It accused the United States of using "hired agents and spies" in the area to "destabilize security in our country, through your borders."
"And we would like you to be aware that our land and air operations will go on through the coming days to chase away those elements," it read. "We are making you aware so that none of you get hurt."
Villagers and Iraqi officials in the area say their territory is now caught up in a growing regional war made worse by deteriorating relations between Iran and the United States. Some accuse Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has close ties with Iran, of failing to protect the Kurds.
"I don't like Saddam Hussein, but he considered this Iraqi territory and he defended it," said Aziz Khuder Hussein, 75, a shepherd and fruit tree farmer who fled his village when the shelling began. "Maliki is an ally of Iran and he would not damage his alliance for us."
In diplomatic meetings in Tehran and Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, has demanded that Iran cease its attacks in Iraq.
"We want this shelling to be halted, because it's causing damage to the border population and is disproportionate to the level of threat that some of the armed groups or terrorist groups are causing to the interests of the Islamic Republic" of Iran, he said at a news conference Sunday in Baghdad.
An official at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad said that within the past three months, Kurdish rebels have staged suicide attacks and committed other violence that killed at least 10 members of the Iranian security forces. "This is why Iran wants to solve this security matter on the borders," he said.
But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, insisted that the accounts of shelling were "rumors and not true" and that "everything that we have done is inside the Iranian territory, not inside Iraq."
"No Kurds have been wounded or affected by that," he said.
Iraqi and U.S. soldiers do not regularly patrol the steep slopes and narrow rocky paths that make much of the border region nearly impassable. The de facto authorities here are the Kurdish guerrilla groups -- considered terrorist organizations by the Turkish and Iranian governments -- whose grenade-strapped fighters stand lonely sentry on the mountain switchbacks.
The young men and women who hail from the Kurdish diaspora in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria fight for greater Kurdish influence in those countries. The most prominent among the guerrilla groups is the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which focuses its efforts against Turkey. Its affiliate organization of Iranian Kurds is called the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK.
"They are targeting the area under the pretext that the PKK and PJAK are there, but they're not hitting the positions," said one PKK official on condition of anonymity. "Iran's actual goals, which they will not announce, is to strike the U.S. and destabilize Iraq."
At a safe house on a desolate slope in the Qandil range, the head of the PKK, Murat Karayilan, said he believed the recent campaign arose because Iran, Turkey and Syria have aligned against what he calls the "Kurdish freedom movement." Karayilan, a stout, mustachioed man in olive-drab fatigues and a thick leather belt, has taken control of the rebel group in Iraq while its highest leader, Abdullah Ocalan, languishes in an island prison in Turkey.
While Karayilan now is pushing for more rights for Kurds across the Middle East, he suggested that his organization's long-term goal is to establish semiautonomous regional entities in those countries similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Many politicians in Iraqi Kurdish territory, however, say they are hostile toward the PKK and would like to drive out the rebel group but cannot spare the soldiers.
This year, Turkey sent tens of thousands of troops to the Iraqi border, raising fears of a major invasion, in what Turkish officials said was a response to PKK attacks in southern Turkey. The shelling by Iranian troops, Karayilan said, serves as a vote of solidarity with Turkey in the campaign against the rebels and the larger Kurdish community. But the timing, he indicated, also reflects an attempt to delay an important Iraqi referendum, scheduled for later this year, on whether to include the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as part of the Kurdish region.
"The third aim of these attacks is to try to give a message to the United States of America and the other international forces," he said. "The Iranians are against the Kurds but at the same time they are very much against the Americans as well."
Iran's deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs, Mohammad R. Baqiri, told reporters in Baghdad on Sunday that an Iranian committee had been formed to look into the border response. But he also accused the U.S. military of supporting Iranian Kurdish rebels in Iraq and said that "if a terrorist group wants to launch attacks from the territories of the other country . . . we should discipline those people who conduct those operations."
A U.S. Defense Department spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, said in an e-mail: "I am not aware of any support being provided to the PJAK."
The Kurdish refugees from the shelling say they are the victims of the Iranian strategy. Ahmed Shilhan, 89, said his son lost an eye when he was struck by shrapnel. Several of Baiz Aziz Khuder's sheep died in the shelling. His father, Aziz Khuder Hussein, recalled watching his apple orchards burning, then piling his family into his Nissan Patrol to escape. A shell burst nearby, spraying shrapnel into his vehicle, he said.
"My daughter-in-law is pregnant and I am afraid she will miscarry," he said, huddled with 30 relatives and neighbors under a tree where they are living. "It feels like we have lost everything."
When the shelling started, Taban Koha Rasheed, 28, was sitting at her breakfast table with a bowl of goat's milk yogurt. The first shells fell high on the mountain above Upper Arcae village, then dozens more swept down into the valley. Her dishes crashed down off the shelves. The windows in her stone house shattered. A shell slammed into the outhouse. "It was like an earthquake hitting the house and everything fell down," she recalled.
Rasheed, a nurse, led several relatives and children into a nearby cave, but a shell burst next to the entrance, spraying them with rocks and dirt, so they rushed farther down the mountain. "The kids kept crying and we couldn't keep them silent," she said. "During the bombing it felt like they wanted to eliminate us."
After walking for several hours, Rasheed and her neighbors camped along a creek, with little more than a few blankets and the food they could carry. The Iraqi Red Crescent and officials in the Kurdish region have contributed additional supplies.
Residents from different villages have staked out territory in these ravines. As the days passed, they brought their goats, sheep and cattle down to the river, and arguments have sprung up over animals crossing into other villages' campsites.
Rasheed now passes her days treating scorpion bites, fevers and stomach sickness from drinking creek water. Other villagers milk goats, cook rice and tea over wood fires, and watch over the children.
One morning last week, after a few days of respite from the shelling, the sound of thunder filled the ravine, but there were no clouds in the sky. Mir Hamza Farha, an elderly woman with bright red hair under her black and white head scarf, knelt by the shallow creek. She closed her eyes, raised her face and open palms to the sun, and prayed she would be spared.
"The bombs are coming," she shouted across the water. "You must leave now!"
Smoke from the shelling began to rise from the tan hills above their campsite. Farha herself had no place left to go.
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Dlovan Brwari contributed to this report.