Dlovan, a 23-year-old Kurd from Kobane: "Wherever there are terrorists we are ready to fight them.” Photo by Campbell MacDiarmid
KIRKUK, Kirkuk province – Guerrillas fighting for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) against the Islamic State say they will not heed the request of President Massoud Barzani to withdraw from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
Their battle against the extremists, the PKK fighters say, is on behalf of all Kurds and the world.
Hundreds of members of the armed wing of the PKK, a leftist Kurdish group that has fought the Turkish state for over 30 years, are stationed on frontlines across the Kurdistan region in positions south of Kirkuk, in Makhmour and in Shingal.
When ISIS threatened to overrun the Kurdish region last summer, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) reluctantly accepted the presence of PKK fighters. For over a year, the battle-hardened guerrillas have fought ISIS, often being sent as mobile shock troops to where the fighting is heaviest.
The most significant contribution of the PKK fighters has so far been to open a corridor to Mount Shingal in December. Crossing from Syria, the PKK and their Syrian wing, the YPG, battled to reach the isolated mountain to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered and to help trapped Yezidis escape to safety.
The presence of PKK guerrillas is not without controversy in the Kurdistan region. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, and it has an uneasy relationship with Barzani's governing Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
These tensions came to a head at the end of July when Turkey started bombing PKK positions in their stronghold the Qandil Mountains.
The airstrikes were in response to renewed attacks by the PKK after an ISIS suicide bombing of Kurds in the town of Suruc that the PKK said was abetted by Turkey.
Flying hundreds of sorties, Turkish planes have targeted PKK bases but also caused forest fires and, in some instances, bombed Kurdish villages. On August 1, 8 civilians and two PKK fighters were killed in airstrikes on Zargali village at the edge of the Qandil range in Iraqi Kurdsitan.
While some Kurds marched to Qandil in protest, the response of the KRG has been measured, calling on both sides to reach a peaceful settlement. In a statement issued after the bombing, Barzani said the PKK “should withdraw its fighters from the Kurdish region.”
Sitting in a farmhouse south of Kirkuk, some 2 km from the nearest ISIS held-town, a platoon of PKK fighters said they would not leave their positions.
“We will stay here until the war is finished,” commander Chem Peri told Rudaw. “As PKK and as Kurds, we are not only fighting for Kurdistan, we are fighting for the world.”
Periodically interrupted by the crump of ISIS mortars landing several hundred meters away, the 33-year-old commander said the PKK maintained good relations with the Peshmerga but were disappointed by the KDP's reaction to Turkey's bombing campaign.
“Even if we have bad relations [with the KDP] they can't take us away from here now because we have won the support of the people,” he said.
One of Peri's fighters, a 28-year-old former tailor from Diyarbakir, Turkey, named Firat, added: “When we first came, we realized that people here misunderstood us. They got us wrong [and] thought we were bad people, even the Kurds thought this. But after we protected their villages, they changed their minds, and saw we were also Kurds and fighting for Kurdistan.”
Analysts see the PKK's fight against ISIS as a way to improve the group’s image. After waging war against Turkey in the 1990s, the group today says it seeks a political solution to Turkey's Kurdish issue, and strongly opposes its label as a terrorist organization.
PKK spokesman Zagros Hiwa said: “In early spring 2013, we made a ceasefire [with Turkey] in order to encourage politics so there would be a democratic solution to the Kurdish question.”
But recent PKK attacks against Turkey may be threatening any political solution in Turkey and further isolating the group. At the end of July, the PKK sabotaged the Kirkuk-Ceyan oil pipeline in southern Turkey, causing an estimated $250 million in losses to the cash-strapped KRG.
Analysts say attacks like these are no help to the PKK public relations.
“The PKK tried so hard to change its image, and it worked – the international view changed. But now there is a dent and people are questioning the PKK again, ” Burcu Ozcelik, a PhD candidate studying Kurdish politics at the University of Cambridge, told Rudaw.
Back on the Kirkuk frontline, the PKK fighters said they hoped the world would appreciate their fight against ISIS.
“Fighting against ISIS makes us feel good, like we are doing something good for humanity,” said 25-year-old female commander Dilan Serdar.