Kurd vs Kurd: Fears of full-scale war rise in northern Iraq

Recent skirmishes in the Kurdish region between PKK fighters and Peshmerga soldiers heighten fears of all-out conflict.

Peshmerga forces are being redeployed to Erbil and Dohuk provinces after helping to defeat the armed group ISIL [File: Ari Jalal/Reuters]
Peshmerga forces are being redeployed to Erbil and Dohuk provinces after helping to defeat the armed group ISIL [File: Ari Jalal/Reuters]

Erbil, Kurdish Region of Iraq – Fears are growing of a full-fledged war between Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and forces of the ruling Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in this autonomous region of northern Iraq.

Tensions between the two sides are increasing amid a military standoff on the Iraq-Turkey border, with civilians on both sides strongly rejecting any possible intra-Kurdish confrontation.

The tensions initially began when the KRG-led Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) accused the PKK of assassinating Ghazi Salih, a security official working at the Sarzer border crossing in Duhok province on October 8.

The PKK, however, denied responsibility.

The situation intensified when the PKK on October 29 claimed responsibility for a “successful sabotage action” on a KRG pipeline to Turkey near Mardin province, suspending oil exports.

The KRG said it “strongly condemns the terrorist attack targeting the pipeline” and warned it “will never allow threats against its interests and the livelihood of the peoples of the Kurdistan Region”.

The PKK has an estimated 5,000 fighters stationed largely in Iraqi Kurdish region’s rugged mountainous areas. The group is designated a “terrorist organisation” by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States. Decades-long clashes between Ankara and the PKK have led to tens of thousands of deaths in both Turkey and northern Iraq.

Kurdish-Kurdish war?

KDP President Masoud Barzani accused the PKK of infiltrating Kurdish villages and two days later planting a bomb in Duhok that killed a Peshmerga fighter and wounded two others. The attack was condemned by the US, France, and the federal Iraqi government.

Barzani accused the PKK of disrespecting the KRG by invading villages under its control and imposing taxes on locals – infringing on its sovereignty and oppressing residents.

“The history witnesses that we have deemed Kurdish-Kurdish war haram [religiously banned],” Barzani said on November 2. “However, this stance should not be mistranslated and exploited to challenge the legal authority of the Kurdistan region and to try to impose an illegal armed will on the people of Kurdistan.”

Barzani also alleged that during the height of the fight against ISIL (ISIS), PKK fighters “invaded the border areas and some other places” while KRG’s Peshmerga forces were battling the armed group on the front lines.

The PKK has dismissed all claims and vowed to defend itself against any move by Peshmerga troops.

The PKK-KRG armed standoff is reminiscent of fighting between the two in northern Iraq in the 1990s that killed hundreds of civilians and troops battling for territorial control. Two decades on, a renewed escalation has sparked panic among locals who live in the border areas and who fear history may repeat itself.

The PKK says the KRG’s troop deployments to Duhok province’s Zebari and Gare districts are to attack its fighters. The KRG says the Peshmerga are returning to their own bases now that the anti-ISIL campaign is done.

The KRG is carrying out “serious military activities” in areas where the PKK is present, Murat Karayılan, a member of the PKK’s executive council, told Sterk TV in October, adding the armed group is not seeking war.

According to Karayilan, however, “a conflict is going to occur from these provocations”, referencing the KRG’s buildup of soldiers along the border.

PKK official Murat Karayılan, centre, with fighters on Mount Qandil in 2017 [ANF News]

Reving Heruri – a KDP lawmaker and head of the Peshmerga Committee in Iraqi Kurdish region’s parliament – dismissed Karayilan’s claims.

“The KDP has the right to carry out activities to protect the lives of our people. We are not going anywhere to fight the PKK, but to protect our people,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The troop deployments to the border areas of Duhok and Erbil provinces are to secure the lives of locals and to prevent them from fleeing their villages, forced on them by others,” Heruri said. “We hope no party will make any other mistake to stand in the way of them.”

Turkish operations

Hundreds of villages have been emptied amid months of fighting between Turkey’s military and the PKK. Ankara regularly bombs PKK positions in northern Iraq, and has conducted multiple operations against the armed group along the border.

Chamanke town has become the flashpoint of the Kurd-Kurd confrontation. Aland Amir, mayor of the town where a clash took place on November 4, said 35 villages in the region are “occupied by the PKK”.

“Villagers are not allowed to go back to their areas that have fallen under PKK control, unless they pay them tax,” Amir told Al Jazeera.

“The PKK has become a serious threat to our region. Our people are always subject to getting killed amid the Turkey-PKK crossfire,” he said. “Turkish bombs are expected to drop anytime. If the PKK leaves then Turkey will not bomb. The more they stay, the worse our people will go through. We ask them to go back to their country and fight their battle on their land, not ours.”

Dilshad Khidir lost his mother, brother, and three cousins in a Turkish air raid on their village of Zargali in Erbil province in 2015. He now lives in Sulaimaniyah province’s Raniya district with his father, who was wounded in the attack.

Khidir said his family has endured much “under the mercy of the hovering of planes and bang of bombings”, and urged the PKK to “leave the surroundings of our village so we can return home and resume our life on our land”.

“Had the PKK not sheltered in our village, this would not have happened to us,” he said.

Khidir said he was happy to see the KRG moving to restore its authority and return “services, stability and security to our region”.

“We do not wish to see any intra-Kurdish conflict. We are sick and tired of war… Turkey will never come to our region from hundreds of miles to bomb us if the PKK is not here,” he added.

The aftermath of a Turkish air attack that killed Dilshad Khidir’s mother, brother and three cousins and destroyed their house on August 1, 2015 in the village of Zargali [Courtesy: Dilshad Khidir]

Fayaq Gulpi is head of the Democratic Politics Academia in the Kurdish region and a former PKK official in close contact with its leadership. He said the KRG has amassed troops at border areas close to PKK bases, “something that has seriously worried and angered the PKK”.

“According to what I have learned from PKK officials, they do not want to engage in any war … and they say they never initiate conflict but are ready to defend themselves if attacked,” Gulpi told Al Jazeera.

“The PKK and the KRG must exercise maximum restraint and put the interests of the Kurdish nations before their own interests. Any conflict will bring a lose-lose situation to both sides. I am smelling a war about to break out.”

Gulpi accused Turkey of being a “major player in this game” and warned the two Kurdish sides “must not fall into the Ankara trap”.

Turkey has said it is determined “to take the measures it deems necessary for its border security – no matter where it may be”.

A member of an elite female Kurdish Peshmerga unit trains in Sulaimaniyah [File: AP]

‘Bury the hatchet’

At Erbil’s downtown bazaar, shop owners gather to discuss the possibility of all-out conflict between the KRG and PKK.

“Enough with intra-Kurdish war. We are Kurds. We are brothers. We share the same fate and blood. President Barzani has declared Kurdish-Kurdish war haram, so do we,” said shop owner Shazad Najat.

Another businessman, Shaaban Abdulaziz, added both Kurdish sides need to “bury the hatchet”.

A veteran Peshmerga soldier, who refused to be named fearing what he said would be “retribution from the PKK stooges who are everywhere” angrily said: “The PKK is executing a foreign agenda. They do all it takes to abort our achievements and successful experience of ruling in the Kurdish region. They are a terrorist organisation and the KRG should not engage in any dialogue with terrorists.

“If they really fight for the greater rights of the Kurds in Turkey, which they all the time claim of doing, they must take this battle back to their own country, or lay down arms and fight for the rights of Kurds in a democratic process, just as the HDP [the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the largest pro-Kurdish party in Turkey] does.”

Lahib Higel, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Iraq, told Al Jazeera it was unlikely a full-scale war would develop because “both sides have more to lose than to gain”.

“Should a war break out similar to what we saw in the early ’90s, it is likely to be devastating for the PKK as it will draw Turkey further in through its support of the KDP,” she said.

But Higel added that the government in Baghdad should step in to help restore peace.

“The Iraqi government,” she said, “should seek all possibilities to cease hostilities through dialogue with Turkey, the KRG and PKK affiliates in Iraq.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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