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A Kurdish Society of Soldiers

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The Washington Post's Josh Partlow spent time with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in Iraq's Zap valley this February. Video by Josh Partlow/The Washington Post, Editor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com

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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 8, 2008

ZAP VALLEY, Iraq -- On the day the Turkish soldiers withdrew from Iraq, 40 Kurdish guerrillas convened to bury five of their dead.

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The corpses were wrapped in black plastic and camouflage tarp, lashed to stretchers fashioned from branches, and draped in the flag of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. In silence the guerrillas stacked large rocks into five piles, resting the stretchers end-to-end on the cairns. They stood in two rows with machine guns pointed above the mountains that surrounded them and waited for their leader to speak.

"The Turkish army could not capture any of our territory, could not get one of our bases, our weapons or even a scrap of nylon," Bahoz Erdal, the 39-year-old military commander of the Kurdish guerrillas, told his serried ranks. "The Turkish army didn't have any chance to rest. When they attacked, we hit them. When they made camp, we hit them. Even when they pulled back, we hit them."

The conclusion of the eight-day battle last Friday along Iraq's northern border was described by Turkey's government as the scheduled end to a successful incursion that crippled its enemies, destroying hundreds of their caves and hideouts. But ultimately the battle ended where it had begun, with the intractable guerrillas in sole control of hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain.

At the funeral, the quiet ending to their latest war, some guerrillas bowed their heads but no tears were shed.

"In the last 10 days in Zap, our fighters displayed their historic heroism," Erdal told his soldiers. "In this defense, you brought back again the fighting spirit of the PKK."

A Washington Post correspondent and staff photographer who spent five days inside rebel territory during and after the battle -- the only reporters allowed to accompany the guerrillas through this period -- observed a self-sufficient society, with its own rituals and traditions, that bears no resemblance to the rest of Iraq. Access, however, was limited to the people and places the guerrillas chose to reveal, and it was difficult to verify details of the battle because of the vast distances between locations.

What was clear was that years in these snowcapped mountains have forged the fighters into rugged ascetics. Although they have based themselves in northern Iraq, they are oriented elsewhere, choosing even to live on Turkish time, an hour behind Iraq's. They are based in the heart of the Islamic Middle East but are largely uninterested in religion or the cultures they abandoned in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. They relate their struggle to those of the American revolutionaries who fought the British crown, and the Cuban guerrillas who followed Fidel Castro down from the Sierra Maestra mountains.

"We are fighting for democracy, for freedom," said Osman Delbrine, a 32-year-old guerrilla with eight years in the mountains. "We are fighting for peace and for all Kurds in all nations."

Their tactics can be ruthless. They slip over the border to blow up Turkish soldiers and retreat back to Iraq. It is more unusual for them to be on the defensive, protecting their territory from Turkish attack. The PKK, with 4,000 to 5,000 fighters, according to the U.S. State Department, represents less of a threat than it once did to the Turkish government. But the group is benefiting from a resurgence of nationalist feeling among the 25 million Kurds dispersed throughout the region.

The PKK leaders say they are no longer fighting for an independent Kurdish state, or even to replicate or expand the semiautonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. Rather, they say, they want their people to speak Kurdish in schools, to receive national identification cards, to have equal rights for women, to avoid persecution by state security forces, and to gain respect and political influence wherever they live. To walk among the guerrillas, however, is to feel some are also fighting to prolong their communal, socialist experiment and to be left alone.

"In society, in the cities, I feel like someone is choking me," said Berivan, a 27-year-old female guerrilla. "In the mountains I feel free."


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