For Kurds In N. Iraq, A Familiar Foreboding

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 1, 2007

DESHTETEK, Iraq, Oct. 31 -- The last three women left this tiny hamlet on Monday, carrying no more than their clothes and prayers. They joined 250 villagers who fled in the past two weeks, locking their homes and their yellow church and driving away on a desolate road scarred by war. Only 11 men remain, their lands separated from Turkey by a thin, emerald river winding through a fertile valley.

For several months now, Turkish forces have been shelling this rugged terrain from mountain bases, including a massive one perched above Deshtetek, in an effort to root out Kurdish guerrillas. An immense Turkish flag, its white crescent and star gleaming in the sun, is painted on the mountainside.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, Deshtetek's community of Chaldean Christians was driven from here, their ancestral homeland, to Mosul and Baghdad. Two years ago, they came back to this remote edge of northern Iraq to escape religious persecution and sectarian violence. Now, as the shelling from Turkey intensifies, a familiar dread has returned to their lives.

"This is our fate," said Zaito Warda Michael, 75, Deshtetek's mayor. "We have to flee all the time."

Along Iraq's border with Turkey, Kurds are caught in the crosshairs of a long-simmering conflict between Turkey and the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, which threatens to open a new front in the Iraq war. Several thousand civilians have fled their homes, propelled as much by the shelling as fear of the unknown. The pace of their departures picked up after Turkey's parliament two weeks ago voted to authorize the military to invade. Turkish attacks, including aerial bombings, have burned scores of fields and orchards, the villagers' main source of income and food.

But the campaign has done little to stop the guerrillas. On Monday, it took a half-hour's drive from Deshtetek, through these forbidding mountains, to run into four fighters, wearing grenade belts and clutching rifles, heading into Turkey. Their outpost was less than a mile from a border checkpoint operated by the Kurdish regional government, the semiautonomous body that administers northern Iraq.

The Iraqi Kurds have had an ambivalent relationship with Turkey. During a period of intra-Kurdish strife in the mid-1990s, Turkish forces were allowed into northern Iraq to pursue the PKK, and they remain in the area. On Wednesday at least 10 Turkish tanks were parked around their military base near the town of Bamerni.

Following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraqi Kurds feared the Turks would enter their region to undermine Kurdish autonomy and seize Iraqi oil. Since then, Turkish investment in northern Iraq and cross-border trade have grown.

As fellow Kurds, many villagers sympathize with the PKK, which has fought to carve a Kurdish state out of Turkey but now seeks Kurdish autonomy. But the villagers deny Turkish accusations that they support the guerrillas. They have little confidence that Iraq's weak central government can solve the crisis and place their hopes in the Iraqi Kurds' main Western backer. "Our destiny is in the hands of the United States," said Yusef Ali, 50, a farmer in the village of Kashan, which was shelled last week.

The tensions arise in a region finally reaping peace after generations of suffering, in contrast to the rest of the country. "We want to build irrigation projects, a church, a mosque, or pave a road," said Khalid Aziz, the mayor of Batifa, to which many families have fled. "We don't want war. We have witnessed too many wars in our lives."

Jamil Oraha, 53, moved back to Deshtetek from Mosul after Sunni insurgents started using the telephones in his call center to threaten Iraqis working with the police and the U.S. military. They warned Oraha that they would detonate a hand grenade in his store if he didn't cooperate.

For 13 months, he found stability in his village, along with other Chaldean families, Catholics who observe a rite of worship developed, in part, in the Mesopotamian region. The regional government built 25 houses colored in shades of cream and lime-green. Families returned from Mosul, Baghdad, even as far away as the southern city of Basra. That they faced a Turkish military base across the valley was never a threat. "We knew our roads and lands. They knew theirs," Oraha explained.

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