Turkey’s war against PKK moves deeper into Iraq
Dere (Iraq) Iraq may soon become the battleground in a US – Iran conflict, but it is Turkey’s war against Kurdish militants in the north that has locals fearing for their lives.
Farid Marxal lives with his family on a chicken farm in the village of Dere. It is a small town beneath picturesque mountains in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq – near the border with Turkey. Thousands of tourists come to the nearby hilltop city of Amedi and the surrounding area every year.
Marxal was at home on June 13 when Turkish jets dropped a bomb just metres from his house, killing some of his chickens and terrifying him and his family.
“We are getting so tired of the fighter jets flying over,” Marxal told InsideOver. “Everything can be taken down in one second, as you can see.”
Turkey bombs targets of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a Kurdish militant group seeking more autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds – in the area. Previously, the strikes were mostly relegated to the mountains. However, with Turkey’s new offensive, the fighting is getting deeper into Iraqi territory and closer to people’s homes.
‘Deal with it on their own land’
The PKK has fought the Turkish government since the 1980s, and is considered a terrorist group by Ankara, as well as the US and EU. The group has long based itself in the mountains along the Turkey-Iraq border, and Turkey regularly bombs their positions there.
Turkey began Operation Claw against the PKK on May 27, and is now using helicopters and ground troops in addition to air strikes. Turkey says it has killed more than 40 PKK militants since the operation began, according to state media.
The north of the Kurdistan Region near Turkey is predominantly Kurdish, with Assyrian Christian inhabitants as well. Residents who are not members of the PKK say they are being affected, too. Marxal says that it is not right that the Turkey-PKK conflicts affects him and his family.
“It would be better if they didn’t bring it here,” he said. “Deal with it on their own land.”
There were no PKK fighters on his property when the bomb went off, according to Marxal. “We’re civilians,” he said.
Turkish air strikes near the mountains along the border happen regularly. However, some are now getting closer to major population centers.
On June 12, a bomb hit a gas station only about a kilometre from Amedi. There were also bombs deployed on the road between Amedi and the city of Duhok, including the one that hit Marxal’s property.
The strike on the gas station was also down the street from the local office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The KDP is the ruling party in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). A party spokesman was not available for comment on the day of InsideOver’s visit to the office.
The Duhok province where the strike occurred is a stronghold for the KDP, whose forces have fought the PKK in the past. KDP leaders have also blamed the PKK’s use of Iraqi Kurdish territory for the violence.
‘Never got the right treatment’
The conflict affects people across the country, some of whom have already lived through the rise of the Islamic State, the US invasion, the Iran-Iraq war, and more. Salah Amr Mahmoud’s son, Amin, died when he was shot to death on his farm on June 4. The Turkish military has not commented on the incident, but friends and family say that Turkish troops shot him while he was working on the farm near the Turkish border and the city of Zakho.
“It’s not only my child,” Mahmoud told InsideOver on the dangers of the situation “It’s anyone going close to the border.”
Mahmoud’s family fled Sinjar in 2014, following the Islamic State’s genocide against members of the Yazidi religious minority in the city. They came to Chamishko camp in the Kurdistan Region, where Yazidis live in a series of tents. Mahmoud says his son’s death was only the latest tragedy in his and the Yazidis’ history.
“We never got our rights,” he said from outside his tent. “We never got the right treatment.”
Mahmoud says the KRG, Iraqi government and the UN should do something to stop Turkey from killing civilians. His brother Mirza says the attack was near an Iraqi army outpost, and that they should have helped his nephew.
“They didn’t bother to help,” he told InsideOver. “The Iraqi government is aware and didn’t do anything.”
‘Protect the border’
Both the Iraqi federal government and the KRG have spoken out against Turkey’s bombings. At the same time, the KRG enjoys strong economic ties with Turkey. The KRG does not have a good relationship with the PKK, but if the KRG were to attack the PKK, it would risk a strong public backlash. Iraq has not taken action to stop Turkey’s interventions beyond statements.
The PKK’s use of Iraqi territory is a clear security threat to Turkey. Since fighting between Turkey resumed in 2015, at least 4,397 people have died in relation to the conflict, according to statistics from International Crisis Group updated in May. This includes 1,166 members of the security forces, and 464 civilians.
In Syria, the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) make up the bulk of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting the Islamic State. Turkey has threatened to take action against them in Syria. From the Turkish perspective, two of its neighbors have a strong, largely unopposed PKK presence.
Most, but not all, of the fighting takes place in KRG territory. Some Iraqi politicians criticize Turkey nonetheless. Fiery Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called Turkey’s operations “terrorist” in a June 13 tweet, saying “we demand the government to protect the border to the east, west, north and south.”
It is unclear if Turkey will face any blowback as the fighting moves deeper into the country and continues to involve ground forces. The Turkey-PKK conflict has already left people hurt in ways beyond the physical.
Mahmoud says he assigned someone else to look after his farm following his son’s death. The residents of Chamishko camp rely on aid to survive. Amin was trying to better their situation when he was shot and killed.
“We count on family members. We’re poor,” said Mahmoud of their farm. “We were trying to make some income.”
Dana Zangana contributed translation to this report.