The Treasury Department has blacklisted an Iranian Kurdish opposition group based in northern Iraq, a move that was greeted enthusiastically in Iran’s state-run media as part of a initiative by the Obama administration to forge better U.S.-Iranian relations.
The Party of Free Life of Iranian Kurdistan, known by its Kurdish acronym, PJAK, was created in 2004 and has never engaged in international terrorism or in military activity outside of Iran.
But its guerilla fighters have clashed frequently with Iranian Revolutionary Guards units in Iranian Kurdish towns and villages, making it a primary target of the Iranian regime.
In November, for example, the provincial police commander in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province, Brigadier Hassan Karami, told the state-owned Iran Press TV that his troops had clashed with PJAK units 65 times since March, killing 13 PJAK fighters and wounding 24 others.
Iran has complained frequently about PJAK’s activities, and has launched repeated artillery attacks and even airstrikes against PJAK bases in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq. But until now, Iran’s efforts to get PJAK branded as a terrorist organization – both in Europe and the United States – have failed.
“With today’s action, we are exposing PJAK’s terrorist ties to the KGK and supporting Turkey’s efforts to protect its citizens from attack,” said the Treasury Department news release announcing the designation.
The Treasury statement claimed that PJAK was “controlled by the terrorist group Kongra-Gel (KGK, aka the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK).”
But the KGK is a pan-Kurdish political Congress, separate from PJAK and from the PKK, which officially dissolved itself in 2000, said Nilufer Kok, a KGK vice-president.
PJAK officials say that, although PJAK takes part in the sessions of the Kongra-Gel, it is controlled by its own party Congress that convenes in northern Iraq, not by the KGK.
The Treasury Department statement claims that the “KGK formally institutionalized PJAK in 2004 and selected five KGK members to serve as PJAK leaders, including Hajji Ahmadi, a KGK affiliate who became PJAK’s General Secretary.”
In interviews with Newsmax in Washington, D.C., and in Europe, Rahman Haji Ahmadi repeatedly has denied any affiliation with the PKK. “We are an Iranian party, fighting the Iranian regime. We have nothing to do with Turkey,” he said.
“But the Iranians know they can’t make trouble for us directly because they have bad relations with the U.S. and Europe. So they go through Turkey. It’s the Iranians who are saying that PJAK and the PKK are the same.”
The Turkish government has been pressuring the United States to put PJAK on the terrorism list for the past eighteen months, and welcomed last week’s move by the Treasury Department.
"PJAK is a terrorist organization, and we see the US putting it on its terror list as a positive development," Brig. Gen. Metin Gürak, head of the General Staff's communications department, told reporters in Ankara Thursday.
The Turkish foreign ministry also issued a congratulatory statement praising the U.S. move.
“PJAK and PKK are not two separate organizations,” a Turkish official told Newsmax. “They are one and the same. That’s just a fact.” But when pressed, the official could not provide any evidence of cooperation between PJAK and PKK, and acknowledged that the two groups were based in different parts of the Qandil mountain range of northern Iraq.
Independent observers traveling to the region have found no PKK presence at PJAK bases, and no political, military or strategic cooperation between the two groups.
In mid-2007, Iran and Turkey established a joint operational headquarters in Ourmieh, Turkey, to plan combined military operations against PKK and PJAK bases in northern Iraq. The Iranian and Turkish military began shelling Kurdish camps inside Iraq that spring.
Iran is a self-avowed U.S. enemy, while Turkey is a U.S. ally and founding member of NATO.
In November 2007, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Washington, seeking a green-light from President George W. Bush to launch a ground invasion against PKK bases in northern Iraq. While the U.S. turned down his request at the time, Turkish troops moved into northern Iraq several months later.
Since that time, the United States and Turkey have exchanged intelligence information on terrorism “on a real time basis,” knowledgeable sources tell Newsmax.
According to an August 29, 2008, report from the Congressional Research Service, the Bush administration “has been wary of Turkey’s warming of relations with Iran.”
When Turkey announced it was planning to finalize a deal to invest in Iran’s South Pars natural gas field during Ahmadinejad’s official visit to Ankara last August, the State Department issued a sharp warning.
Such a deal “would send the wrong message at a time when the Iranian regime has repeatedly failed to comply with its U.N. Security Council and IAEA obligations,” a State Department official said. “This is not a time to do business with Iran. It is a time for the international community, including our ally Turkey, to begin considering additional measures to pressure Iran.”
PJAK leaders told Newsmax during a reporting tour of rebel bases in northern Iraq in October 2007 that their fighters frequently engage Iranian Revolutionary Guards troops inside Iran’s Kurdish region, primarily in response to Rev. Guards attacks on Kurdish civilians or PJAK political workers.
In the July 2005, for example, a Kurdish human rights activist was brutally murdered by regime agents and his body dragged through the streets of the Iranian Kurdish town of Mahabad behind a jeep.
When local Kurds protested massively and the regime cracked down, killing dozens of Kurds and arresting hundreds more, PJAK guerillas attacked Revolutionary Guards troops in 10 different places.
The PJAK counterstrikes were meant as a warning to the regime that such actions “would no longer go unpunished,” a PJAK guerilla said.
[Editor's Note: Read Ken Timmerman’s eyewitness reporting from a PJAK guerrilla base in northern Iraq - Go Here Now]
PJAK officials tell Newsmax they believe the Treasury Department action was primarily motivated by a desire to win Iranian cooperation in reducing terrorism inside Iraq.
“When the U.S. signed the Status of Forces agreement with the Maliki government, they were hoping to get Iran to reduce its support of Ansar al Islam and other terrorist organizations in Iraq,” said Shamal Bishir, a PJAK representative who spoke to Newsmax on Monday by telephone from Europe. “In exchange, the United States allowed Iran to have greater influence in the Kurdish areas.”
Bishir said the group intended to launch legal action against the Treasury Department to get the designation removed.
Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service, told Newsmax that the Treasury Designation does not mean the group has been put on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist organizations.
“The designation under Executive Order 13224 is not as wide-ranging or as politically significant as an FTO designation,” he said. “There are lots of entities designated under 13224 that never wind up on the FTO list.”
Under the Executive Order, the U.S. will freeze the group’s assets and prohibit American citizens from doing business with it, the Treasury Department statement said.
PJAK leader Rahman Haji Ahmadi warned that if Turkey is successful in dislodging PJAK fighters from Iraq’s border with Iran, this could have dire consequences for Iraq’s security.
“Turkey wants to control the Qandil mountains with Iran. When they do, they will open the border and allow al Qaeda and Ansar al Isslam fighters to come in. And this will make Erbil [the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan] like Fallujah used to be,” he told Newsmax.
U.S. military commanders have credited PJAK with protecting Iraq’s border with Iran from terrorist infiltration, but have shied short of any cooperation with the group.
Roughly one-third of PJAK guerilla fighters are women. Haji Ahmadi called this part of his project to reduce the influence of the Islamists ruling Iran.
“When you give a gun to a woman, she doesn’t have to wear hijab. She can sit down with a man on an equal basis. This is a big blow to the Islamists,” he said.
A State Department official noted that while PJAK was not yet on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, “we condemn the group’s violent activities.”
Neither the Treasury Department or the White House responded to requests for comment.
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