Iran called on NATO member Turkey on Tuesday to help battle dissident Kurds in the rugged mountains along the northern border between Iran and Iraq.
Turkey sent 20 tanks, 300 special forces troops, and surveillance drones into Iran, eyewitnesses quoted by the Firat news agency reported.
Firat is close to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey (PKK), which is waging its own fight against the Turkish government and also has bases in northern Iraq.
But as I found out during a visit to the area this February, the PKK camps are hours away from the area where Iran has been battling its own rebel Kurds, who belong to the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, PJAK.
Turkey’s move marks a dramatic escalation in the battle. For their part, PJAK spokesmen claim they have killed more than 250 Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps troops and destroyed several IRGC forward operating bases.
Turkey denies claims that it was coordinating military operations with Iran out of concerns that this would jeopardize its membership in the NATO alliance. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his chief of general staff on Tuesday to discuss the new military moves.
Because of high casualties among draftee soldiers, Turkey plans to recruit 5,000 “contract troops” to combat the Kurds, the Turkish daily al-Hurriyet reported after the meeting.
Turkey purchased the Heron surveillance drones it sent to Iran from the Israeli firm Elbit in 2009, before the recent suspension of Israeli-Turkish defense cooperation.
Iranian shelling of Iraqi Kurdistan has caused hundreds of villagers to flee the region and and has caused fires in large areas of farmland and forests, according to the Red Cross.
Kurdish commentator Rebwar Karim Wali said, “Iran is only shelling to create unrest in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. It is certainly more than just wanting to confront a group of guerrilla fighters. As soon as the Arab Spring began and people started revolting against their dictators, Iran feared the flames could catch up with it as well. That is why it began to create unrest in places where it finds some influence."
Even PJAK’s political rivals agree that Iran leaders fear that the opposition Green Movement, which until now has been dominated by Persian-speaking Tehran-based intellectuals, might link up with ethnic groups such as PJAK.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari broke 10 days of virtual silence from Baghdad on Wednesday, telling Iran that the shelling would damage ties between the two countries. "We again demand that the Iranian government stop its continuing shelling" of Iraqi territory "because this is not constructive for Iraq-Iranian relations and will damages ties," he told reporters.
"The shelling has continued for five years, but this time the duration has been longer than previous instances," he added.
Also on Wednesday, a spokesman for U.S. military forces in Iraq called on Iran to stop shelling Iraqi villages. "Iran has to stop its bombardments of Kurdistan’s villages and respect the sovereignty of Iraq,” Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan told the Kurdistan News Agency.
"Iran has no right to shell Kurdistan's border villages without the prior agreement of the federal government. Bilateral relations are built on mutual respect and both governments have to work together to end these conflicts,” he added.
Tehran has put out mixed messages on the fighting. A top military commander in charge of the operation told Iranian news agencies on Tuesday that the Revolutionary Guards and local Kurdish bassiji militias succeeded in killing 50 PJAK fighters since the operations began.
“Our offensive against the American anti-revolutionaries of PJAK will continue along the Iranian border with Iraq in the north until the central government in Iraq and the Kurdistan region . . . deploy police and military forces along the mutual border,” he said.
While visiting Baghdad on Wednesday, Iran’s border guard commander Hussein Zolfiqar, denied that Iranian troops had crossed into Iraqi territory. “The Iranian forces have never pushed into Iraqi territories. All the clashes took place inside Iran’s territories.”
Iranian media have been claiming that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave prior approval for the assault against PJAK bases inside northern Iraq. A PJAK spokesman, Sherzad Kamangar, said PJAK has repelled 19 separate Iranian attempts to penetrate across the border into Iraq.
But Adel Brawari, an adviser to al-Malaki on Kurdish affairs, is now denying there was any such agreement. The Baghdad government was unanimous its "political rejection of Iran's conduct,” he told the Ur News Agency in Iraq.
The Tehran representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two ruling parties in the Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq, told the Tehran Times this week that his party’s militia does not have sufficient forces to control the border area. “We have announced that we do not have the military capability to prevent [PJAK] from taking action against Iran or to expel them from Kurdistan,” Nazim Dabbagh told the state-run Iran Students News Agency on Wednesday.
He insisted that the PUK, which controls the border with Iran, had not given PJAK any authorization to establish military training camps inside KRG territory. “We believe that armed aggression has never produced good results in the world, and we think problems should be resolved through diplomacy,” he added.
Several of Dabbagh’s cables back to the KRG government in Erbil have been leaked to Kurdish media in recent weeks, revealing intense pressure from Iran on the KRG government to close the PJAK camps.
For more background and insight, read “Iranian Troops Attack Kurdish Camps in Iraq.”
Iran also demanded this week that Germany arrest PJAK secretary general Rahman Haj Ahmadi and extradite him to Iran where he could be prosecuted on charges of terrorism and be executed.
Ahmadi has lived in Germany for forty years and has German citizenship.
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