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Kurdish tensions in northern Iraq raise prospects of PKK crackdown

Kurdish intelligence source tells MEE of operation being prepared to drive armed group out of Iraq
Iraqi Kurds wave Kurdish flags during a protest opposing a military operation by the Turkish army against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (AFP)

Fears are growing of a major confrontation between Kurdish factions in northern Iraq, as tensions continue to rise between Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) over control of a strategic territory.

A power struggle over a mountain pass in Zini Warte as well as an air strike by Turkey on a PKK base on 15 April have led to suggestions that a joint KRG-Turkey operation to drive the PKK out of the region could be in the works.

Although the PKK, and the KRG's rulers - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - all grew out of movements to support Kurdish rights, the different groups have often clashed over strategy and ideology down the decades.

Turkey is preparing a major operation against the PKK stronghold in Qandil

- PUK intelligence source

While the PKK has long been based in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq, where they have pressed their decades-long guerilla war with Turkey, the KDP has worried that the group's presence in the region could threaten stability as well as its relations with the Turkish government.

On 20 April, the KRG president, Nechirvan Barzani, a member of the KDP, said that the PKK's presence in the Kurdish region was not "legitimate".

"The PKK should stay away from creating problems for the Kurdistan region. The Kurdistan region is not PKK's area of activity, has never been, and should not be," he said.

"We are part of Iraq, and the Kurdistan region, within this framework, will never accept another power to create problems for its neighbours."

A source within the PUK's intelligence network told Middle East Eye that the current manouvering was a precursor to an assault on the PKK.

"Turkey is preparing a major operation against the PKK stronghold in Qandil," he said.

'Wave of discontent'

The strain is still high at the pass in Zini Warte, in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The pass connects two valleys, one leading to Ranya's plains to the south and the other connecting with the Turkish and Iranian borders to the north.

It also leads close to the Qandil mountains, and the headquarters of the PKK.

Earlier in March, the installation of a military base on the pass by a group of KDP-aligned Pershmerga fighters led to protests from locals in the area.

I don't think deploying artillery, digging trenches and building fortifications are good options to fight the [coronavirus] pandemic

- Zagros Hiwa, KCK spokesperson

Officially, the Peshmergas were dispatched to the pass to monitor traffic, in an attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus potentially brought by people arriving from Iran and to fight smuggling.

But the PKK viewed the move as an act of provocation.

"The KDP has deployed heavily armed Peshmerga to this area, under the pretext of fighting the coronavirus pandemic," said Zagros Hiwa, the spokesperson of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the umbrella organisation aligning PKK-linked groups.

"I don't think deploying artillery, digging trenches and building fortifications are good options to fight the pandemic."

Although the village of Warte is supposed to be in the PUK area of control, the city hall is held by a KDP mayor, which led to accusations that he had helped facilitate the creation of a KDP outpost on the pass.

Following the installation of the base, PUK soldiers advanced to the pass and pressured the KDP soldiers to withdraw.

They were soon joined by the PKK, who demanded both parties' withdrawal.

"We call on all forces to withdraw and de-escalate. We don't accept any military presence in the area", Hiwa told Middle East Eye.

Turkish strikes

Considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and EU, the PKK has been repeatedly targeted by air strikes as well as an on-the-ground operation led by the Turkish army since 2016.

The Turkish army also relies on a string of military bases all across the region to complicate the movement of PKK militants.

The ongoing struggle in the mountains of Kurdistan has already cost hundreds of lives, including dozens of civilians killed by air strikes.

A member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) carries an automatic rifle on a road in the Qandil Mountains, the PKK headquarters in northern Iraq (AFP)
A member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) carries an automatic rifle on a road in the Qandil mountains, the PKK headquarters in northern Iraq (AFP)

Though Turkey's presence in Iraq is regarded as illegal by the federal government in Baghdad, the establishment of Turkish military bases in the KRG territory occurred largely without any resistance from the regional government.

Meanwhile, the PKK kept operating from Qandil, using the mountains as natural fortifications and the mountain paths as connections to different operation grounds. In this regard, Zini Warte is a highly strategic crossroads, since it connects the two plains and the set of mountains that lead to the nearby Turkish border, from where the PKK launches its operations inside Turkey.

In order to pressure both the PUK and the KDP to vacate the pass, PKK fighters eventually set up their own military outpost just next to the KDP's, only to have it bombed by a Turkish drone a few days later.

"Despite reports stating the death of only three or five militants, the Turkish drones killed no less than 11 PKK fighters with two different air strikes," said the PUK intelligence source.

Discontent and repression

As the local population grew angry at the growing tension and fearing the establishment of yet another Turkish facility in the area, some activists decided to step forward and demand the withdrawal of the KDP and PUK elements.

Protests took place in front of the base, while another was scheduled to take place on 29 April but was prevented from happening by PUK security forces.

"We are determined to continue pressuring KDP and PUK parties to remove their positions in Zini Warte because they threaten the stability of the villages around," stated activist Kamaran Osman as he prepared for the next protest in the Warte area.

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"The PUK [security services] are pressuring us not to continue our movement. We have been warned by locals that a checkpoint would be set up on 29 April to block our way up to Warte and prevent our protest.

"A list of activists is circulating and we will probably risk being arrested," he added.

Some residents have become convinced that the build-up is a precursor to a Turkish-backed attack on the PKK.

"[They] have a plan to attack the PKK with Turkey, everyone knows that," said one local, requesting anonymity.

Local journalist Amanj Warte also reported several inconsistencies in the way the PDK and the PUK deployed in the area, pointing to some collusion between the two parties to undermine their other Kurdish rival.

Several of his reports that had been aired in the Kurdish outlets KNN and Sbeiy network were subsequently removed under pressure from the PUK, while the journalist was threatened on the phone with being kidnapped by unknown men.

Amanj Warte said the most sensitive matter he wished to report on was that soldiers wearing Peshmerga uniforms had been spotted speaking in Turkish in his village of Warte as well as in the KDP positions up on the pass.

While the KDP claims Turkey was able to conduct its own intelligence reports with its sophisticated technology to locate the PKK outpost, he argued the presence of Turkish-speaking soldiers in Peshmerga territories points to some form of collusion.

Journalist and Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy analyst Kamal Chomani came to a similar conclusion.

"The establishment of the Zini Warte complex by the KDP is a new step in Turkey's offensive against the PKK stronghold in Qandil," he told MEE.