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Iraqi Kurds fear for their future

Birgit Svensson, Irbil / dcJuly 28, 2015

By extending its airstrikes against the terror organization "IS" to include Kurdish militant PKK targets, Turkey risks escalating conflict with other Kurdish groups in the region. DW's Birgit Svensson reports from Irbil.

ARCHIVE IMAGE: A member of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) stands with an AK-47 in the town of Cizre, Sirnak Province in south-eastern Turkey, on December 28, 2014.
An archive image from December 2014 showing a PKK member in southern TurkeyImage: Getty Images/AFP/I. Askengin

Shirwan is a small Kurdish village in northern Iraq. From its idyllic location within view of the Turkish border, you could almost think that all was still right with the world there. But since Monday, residents have been living in fear of being hit by Turkish air strikes. The Turkish army hasn't just been bombing "Islamic State" targets along the Turkish-Syrian border; it has also been hitting Iraqi targets. After the Qandil mountains further east, Turkish planes most frequently have had the Mergasur region, which includes Shirwan, in their sights.

"Most likely, they want to prevent Kurdish PKK militants from controlling an entire swath of territory along the Turkish border," said village chairman Dikhri.

The people of Shirwan are understandably afraid that their village could be destroyed a second time. During the "Anfal" campaign at the end of the 1980s, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein annihilated some 4,000 Kurdish villages in the border region as revenge for the Kurds' resistance. It took much effort and foreign aid to eventually rebuild Shirwan.

"And now the Turks come," said Dikhri, taking little comfort from the fact that Turkey's actions are directed against the PKK and not Iraqi Kurds.

A whole new dimension of bombings

Something the Kurdish regional authority in Irbil long refused to admit has now been official for two years: The Turkish-Kurdish militant organization PKK does have bases in the Iraqi mountains along the Turkish and Iranian borders. Ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, about 5,000 Turkish Kurds have been operating out of Iraqi territory, initially being quietly tolerated by Iraqi Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani.

A Turkish F-16 fighter jet takes off from Incirlik airbase in the southern city of Adana, Turkey, July 27, 2015.
Turkey has carried out strikes on PKK targetsImage: Reuters/M. Sezer

From there, they planned attacks on Turkish security forces, sparking retaliatory action. The bombardment of PKK positions in Iraq is nothing new, but it has taken on a whole new dimension. Two years ago, the conflict between Ankara and the PKK took a turn: A peace agreement stated that a further 2,000 PKK militants should leave Turkey for the Qandil mountains, on condition that they down weapons and stop their terrorist attacks against the Turkish government. But with Turkish fighter jets now bombing PKK camps in Iraq, peace talks were ended.

Steps toward a positive future

The Iraqi-Kurdish news broadcaster, Rudaw, has reported that F-16 jets have been taking off from an air base in Diyabakir in southeastern Turkey. They first bombed "Islamic State" targets along the border before expanding their attacks to northern Iraq, where the PKK has bases. The Kurdish conflict, which so many hoped had stabilized, has now been reignited. Tension in the region is rising.

Hermine stands in front of Irbil's 5,000-year-old citadel, attempting to draw passersby into a discussion and win their support. The young Kurdish woman has been well trained in how to speak about the political arm of the PKK, the Kurdistan People's Congress. Since it was founded in November 2003, the Kongra-Gel or KGK, has become increasingly significant. That's because the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers' Party, has had less and less to do with workers and politics, and much more to do with weapons and planning attacks.

Long struggle for reconciliation

The PKK is estimated to be responsible for some 40,000 deaths. Turkey, the EU, and the United States have labeled it a terrorist organization. The Kurds realized that they were not getting any further with the PKK, and began pursuing a political solution. Kurdish leader Barzani worked tirelessly on reconciliation between Turkey and the Kurds.

A street scene in Irbil (Photo: Birgit Svensson)
The city of Irbil has close economic ties with TurkeyImage: Birgit Svensson

When in the summer of 2014, Kurdish PKK fighters helped break an Islamic State siege on Mount Sinjar and free hundreds of trapped Yazidis, many thought the militants had reformed. Since then, Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga forces have been full of praise about the PKK's will to fight, and are planning to cooperate further. People in Europe began to change the way they thought about the PKK. There were even calls to remove it from the list of terrorist organizations, especially since Germany became one of the countries to support Kurdish forces fighting against IS with weapons deliveries.

Economic development at risk

That's why Massoud Barzani is appealing to both sides for restraint. "What was achieved in peace cannot be maintained during war," he said. As an economic center with billions in foreign direct investment, Iraqi Kurdistan has already grown to a size that can no longer be ignored. The region's capital, Irbil, has doubled in population in the last 10 years, and is now home to around 1.5 million people.

Barzani does not want to put that development at risk, especially since Turkey is the biggest stakeholder in the region. It has the highest level of investment, and trade relations are now so interconnected that Turkish businessmen have been pressuring Ankara for years to at least reconcile with Iraqi Kurds.