Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqi Kurdistan Braced for Turkish Attack

By Frman Abdul-Rahman

I’ve closely followed the news about a possible Turkish military invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan for several months.

As a journalist, getting permission to interview the Kurdistan Workers' Party's, PKK, is not an easy process. A chain of PKK members must review your request, and if you are lucky, you will be granted an interview. Then, a long journey begins.

Shortly after the PKK approved my interview request, I headed off with two colleagues to the rugged Qandil mountain, where the guerrillas are based. The area is about 100 kilometres northeast of Sulaimaniyah in northern Iraq.

The PKK has been fighting the Turkish government for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey since 1984. Since then, thousands of troops and civilians have been killed. Turkey has always been worried about the fact that the PKK are based in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Turkish government has accused the Iraqi government of not doing enough to stop the PKK from crossing the border and attacking Turkish troops.

Recently, fighting has flared between Turkey and the PKK, and Turkey has threatened to invade Iraqi Kurdistan to root out the PKK for weeks. I went to Qandil mountain to cover PKK’s side of the story. As a reporter, it was important for me to see the situation with my own eyes.

The fighting had mostly been between Turkish troops and PKK fighters near Duhok along the Iraqi-Turkish border in north-central Iraq, so I was not walking into conflict area. But the PKK on Qandil mountain will no doubt be targeted if Turkey decides to launch a major military operation. We are still waiting to see whether Turkey will invade.

This was my second trip to PKK-controlled areas in Qandil, and I was better prepared this time with outdoor clothes and shoes for the harsh mountain environment. If a PKK member does not pick you up at the PKK’s checkpoint, you must walk for at least a kilometre up a steep mountain.

We crossed the last Kurdistan Regional Government-controlled checkpoint, where our names were recorded. After driving about 30 km through windy, mountain roads, we arrived at the first PKK checkpoint.

The area between the Iraqi Kurdish government-controlled area and PKK territory is about 30 km in length. It is basically a buffer zone and even though there are many villages and it is technically part of Sulaimaniyah province, the Kurdish government has not been in the area since 2000. The locals run their own administration in these areas and the PKK holds a lot of power here.

The environment alone explains why the PKK set up its base here. The mountain is about 3,500 metres above sea level. While the Turkish army has launched military operations in the past to uproot the PKK in Qandil, they have never succeeded.

At the PKK checkpoint, the guards took our mobile phones even though there was no network coverage.

Our guide, PKK commander Abdularahman Chadirchy arrived in a car at the checkpoint, saving us the hike up the mountain. We rode with him for around 2 km until he stopped the car. We conducted the interview not at a PKK base but on the mountain slope, and we were not allowed to take pictures.

Chadirchy left us for what he promised would be a few minutes, but it actually lasted for two hours. The commander came back with a female guerrilla and told us that we should interview her.

She seemed liked she had been had been trained by the spin doctors and answered every question very briefly - mostly yes or no. It was not the best interview I’ve ever had, so we asked Chadirchy to let us interview someone else. At first, he was reluctant but eventually he let us talk to another female guerrilla who was more open.

The experience was vastly different than when I interviewed the PKK in Qandil in June. At that time, I could meet most of the PKK’s political and guerrilla leaders. I was allowed to freely roam around their camps and interview as many people as I wanted. I could also choose my own guide, unlike this time, when I felt I was being watched all the time. The PKK told us they were concerned about security.

I wanted to spend the night with the PKK in the hopes that I could get more information, but the commander said we could not stay with them and that we should go back to Sulaimaniyah. The guide said they couldn’t protect us.

I arrived in Sulaimaniyah late in the evening and started to put the story together. I sent it immediately and received several questions from my editors. I was writing under a tight deadline to produce the story because the situation was constantly changing, and we were competing with other news organisations.

In the end, the assignment was well worth it and I was glad that I had interviewed the PKK when I did. A few days after my trip, the Kurdish government prohibited journalists from travelling to Qandil and other PKK areas.

Frman Abdul-Rahman is an IWPR journalist in Sulaimaniyah.

Link to original article by Frman Abdul-Rahman in Qandil. Published in ICR No. 236, 2-Nov-07 

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