Kurdish Soldiers in Iraq Caught Between Competing Allegiances

By Joshua Partlow and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 24, 2008

BALINDA, Iraq, Feb. 23 -- The Iraqi Kurdish soldiers stood at the edge of the collapsed steel bridge and looked down into the teal waters rushing below. The last sign of the Iraqi government, a small border checkpoint, was far behind them down in the river valley.

Ahead were snow-dusted mountains, abandoned villages and more bridges bombed by Turkish warplanes. The soldiers were at least 15 miles from Turkey's border. They could go no farther.

It is in these rugged, largely inaccessible mountains along the border, an area inside Iraq but uncontrolled by any nation, that Turkish soldiers are fighting Kurdish guerrillas. For the third day, Turkish attack helicopters and artillery bombarded guerrilla bases inside Iraq, blasting cave hideouts, arms caches and antiaircraft positions, Turkey's military said Saturday.

Although the Turkish government is describing the military incursion as a limited operation that will end as quickly as possible, it is the first major ground incursion into Iraq since Saddam Hussein's government fell in April 2003. U.S. and Iraqi officials estimate that 500 to 1,000 Turkish soldiers are involved, but Turkish news reports put the number as high as 10,000. Turkey said it has killed at least 79 guerrillas and lost seven soldiers.

For the Kurdish soldiers who control most of northern Iraq, the violence along the border has put them in an increasingly uncomfortable position. They said the recent bombing campaigns have targeted Kurdish civilians in villages that are often far from the bases of the guerrilla group, known as the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The group, which uses a corner of northern Iraq as a base, seeks greater autonomy for Kurds in Turkey.

Local officials in northern Iraq said thousands of farmers, shepherds and villagers fled south during the months of bombing that preceded this week's ground incursion. The Iraqi Kurdish soldiers, known as the pesh merga, have spread out across the northern region and are on high alert, awaiting orders from their commanders, soldiers said.

"The Turkish army doesn't have the right to come into our country. What they are doing is against the law," Maj. Hussein Jafar, a pesh merga officer, said at the edge of the destroyed Avamarke bridge, a roughly 40-yard span built in 2004 that was blasted by Turkish missiles on Thursday, according to residents and local officials. It was one of five bridges in the border region destroyed in the Turkish bombardments, Kurdish soldiers said.

"They bombed the bridge because they say there are PKK in this area, but actually the PKK are very far from here. They want to destroy the economy of our country," Jafar said.

Many pesh merga soldiers risked their lives defending Kurdish territory from Hussein's forces, and they say Turkey's offensive is a violation of their sovereignty. Several said that they are upset that the U.S. and Iraqi governments have largely condoned Turkey's attacks on the PKK and that they are prepared to defend their people if Turkey continues its advance. The United States and Turkey consider the PKK a terrorist organization.

"If Turkey comes farther than they are now, then 100 percent we will stop them," said Maj. Gen. Hashim Sitae, a pesh merga commander in the northern city of Dahuk.

In a statement on its Web site, the Kurdistan Regional Government offered no support for the PKK but condemned the Turkish military operations, saying it was "imperative that Turkey immediately withdraw its military forces from the Kurdistan Region in Iraq." The statement called on the United States to help stop the offensive.

"The Turkish army came into Iraq and hit our villages and hit our civilians, and we have to be ready to protect them," said Col. Humaid Muhammed Abdullah, a pesh merga officer in Dahuk. "We are waiting for the Americans to do something to solve this situation."

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