‘It’s not over’: Iranian Kurds in Iraq in Tehran’s crosshairs

The roof is caved in, a wall has exploded and broken glass litters the floor at a base of the exiled Kurdish-Iranian opposition in mountainous northern Iraq.

“These are the regime’s missiles,” said Karim Farkhapour, a leader of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), with a revolver strapped to his traditional belt.

“The Iranian regime has bombed us three times in less than two months.”

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been torn by over two months of protests sparked by the death in custody of Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, 22.

As Iranians have vented their anger at the regime, Tehran has blamed outside forces, and exiled Kurdish groups on whose bases it has rained down missiles and so-called suicide drones.

The PDKI’s headquarters, dubbed “the Castle”, near the town of Koysinjaq, or Koya in Kurdish, looks like a desert mountain fort straight out of an adventure novel.

The movement settled there in 1993 during the era of former dictator Saddam Hussein, who was toppled in the 2003 US-led invasion and executed three years later.

Twelve PDKI members were killed and 20 wounded in the latest attacks on the site, said Farkhapour.

PDKI members have evacuated the fort, which remains heavily damaged, with cables dangling from the library roof and books scattered on the floor.

In another room, Farkhapour stepped gingerly through the rubble to reach a Kurdish flag that remained unscathed.

“The Tehran regime is going to target us again,” he predicted grimly. “It’s not over, you’ll see.”

– ‘Hide the truth’ –

It was not the first time Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has launched strikes against the PDKI or other groups in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Iranian government labels these factions “terrorists” accusing them of fuelling the civil unrest since the September 16 death of Amini, who had been arrested for allegedly breaching Iran’s strict dress code for women.

Iran has accused the groups of importing weapons from Iraq across the porous border long used by smuggling networks.

“False”, retorted Moustafa Mouloudi, another of the leaders of the PDKI in Koysinjaq.

“There is absolutely no evidence that we have smuggled weapons from Iraq to Iran,” he said. “It’s a lie that the regime has made up to hide the truth from the people. The regime is the terrorist.”

Iranian Kurdish groups such as the PDKI and Komala have long been in Tehran’s sights.

Based in Iraqi Kurdistan since the 1980s with the blessing of Saddam, who was then at war with Iran, many follow a socialist doctrine.

“We are a secular party and we fight for women’s rights,” said Farkhapour.

Although analysts believe they have largely refrained from armed activities in recent years, they continue to actively campaign from exile.

The PDKI denounces the discrimination suffered by Iran’s Kurdish minority, who make up some 10 million out of the country’s 83 million people.

The group has demanded a fully democratic and federal Iran in which Kurdish provinces would have considerable autonomy.

– ‘Living in fear’ –

The group is tightly organised in a rigid hierarchy and demanded that AFP reporters stick closely to an official programme for the visit.

Within the PDKI, “we are free”, said Shaunem Hamzi, a 36-year-old activist who lives in Koysinjaq with her parents.

Before the latest attacks, she lived in a PDKI camp about 500 metres (just over 500 yards) from the citadel where some 200 families resided in single-storey cinderblock or concrete houses.

However, the latest attacks, she said, “have been much stronger than the previous ones. The children, the families were very scared. The fear of getting killed is among us now.”

Like the other inhabitants, Hamzi had to leave the camp and now frequently switches sleeping places.

As an Iranian Kurdish woman, she strongly identifies with the protest movement rocking Iran.

“If the regime even temporarily makes us stop, the protest will surface again, because it is in our hearts,” she said passionately.

“The protesters will never obey the regime’s rules.”

Who are the Iranian-Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq?

Baghdad (AFP) Nov 28, 2022 –
Iranian-Kurdish rebel groups have for decades sought refuge in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, but they have recently come under fresh fire amid weeks of protests in the neighbouring Islamic republic.

In the wake of demonstrations sparked by the September 16 death in custody of Mahsa Amini — an Iranian woman of Kurdish origin — Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has launched missile and drone strikes on the bases of Kurdish groups in northern Iraq.

At least 17 people have been killed in these strikes since September, according to an AFP tally based on reported tolls.

After previously waging an insurgency against the clerical state in Iran, the groups have largely abandoned combat activities in recent years to focus on political campaigning for long-sought rights for Kurds.

– Long-standing opposition –

Since the 1980s, Iranian Kurdish factions have made a home for themselves in Iraqi Kurdistan — often with the blessing of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Tehran classes these groups as “terrorist” and “separatist” organisations, accusing them of launching attacks on Iranian forces.

But after decades of armed insurrection, they have heavily scaled back any military activity, while continuing to train fighters at bases in Iraqi Kurdistan’s mountainous regions.

The oldest is the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), which has repeatedly denied using Iraqi territory to launch attacks on Iran.

Rather, it says its political leadership is headquartered in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The party “fights to realise the national rights of Kurds through a federal and democratic Iran”, according to its website.

The second-largest is the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, founded in 1969 by intellectuals and students in Tehran and Kurdish cities in Iran.

Another target of the cross-border strikes is the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), whose fighters were among the forces that helped drive out the Islamic State group from its former strongholds in Iraq.

Also based in Iraq is the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has waged an insurgency in Turkey and is considered a terrorist group by Ankara and its allies.

Despite a fragile ceasefire in 2011, sporadic clashes have pitted the Kurdish rebels against Iranian forces.

– Political struggle –

The groups have supported demonstrations that broke out in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, after her arrest by the morality police for allegedly violating the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women.

Much of the activism has shifted to social media, where the Iranian-Kurdish factions in Iraq have been vocal in their support of the protests, sharing videos and relaying calls for general strikes.

Before the demonstrations kicked off, there were frequent border crossings, says Adel Bakawan, director of the French Research Center on Iraq (CFRI).

When these factions “wanted to carry out military action”, they would send smaller units across the border to Iran, he added.

Today, the “PDKI and Komala are doing everything to avoid militarising the protests”, as Tehran could use this to “justify” an even harsher crackdown, he said.

The groups have long denounced discrimination faced by Iran’s Kurdish minority — about 10 million of the 83-million-strong population — who adhere to Sunni Islam rather than the Shiite branch prevalent in the country.

Iranian Kurds complain of a lack of local political representation and an absence of economic development in the country’s Kurdish regions. Authorities have also banned them from teaching their language in schools.

– Iranian anger –

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani has previously stressed that the Islamic republic wants “no threat to Iran’s security from Iraqi territory”.

Iranian officials, who describe the recent protests as “riots”, have accused Kurdish rebel groups of participating in the unrest and of crossing into Iran to stage attacks.

“Iran is looking for a scapegoat,” said analyst Fabrice Balanche. “The Iranians want to portray the protesters as being manipulated by external forces.”

– Iraqi Kurdish ties –

Since the 1990s, an agreement between northern Iraq’s Kurdish authorities and the rebel groups has guaranteed their right to reside in the autonomous region — provided they refrain from any combat activity to avoid compromising ties with Tehran.

Kurds in Iran and Iraq speak the same Sorani dialect, and many families straddle both sides of the border.

Iranian day-labourers regularly cross the frontier to seek better-paid work in Iraq.

Even veteran Kurdish politician Massud Barzani, considered a founding figure of the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq, was born in the short-lived Republic of Mahabad, an unrecognised Kurdish statelet which sprung up with Soviet support in 1946.

It existed for less than a year before Iran reasserted control.


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