World and Nation

Conflict Simmers on a Second Kurdish Front in Northern Iraq

Deadly raids into Turkey by Kurdish militants holed up in northern Iraq are the focus of urgent diplomacy, with Turkey threatening invasion of Iraq and the United States begging for restraint while expressing solidarity with Turkish anger.

Yet out of the public eye, a chillingly similar battle has been under way on the Iraqi border with Iran. Kurdish guerrillas ambush and kill Iranian forces and retreat to their hideouts in Iraq. The Americans offer Iran little sympathy — Tehran even says Washington aids the Iranian guerrillas, a charge the United States denies. True or not, that conflict, like the Turkish one, has explosive potential.

On a recent reporting trip to the Iran-Iraq border, Salih Shevger, an Iranian Kurdish guerrilla, was interviewed as he lay flat on a slab of rock atop a 10,000-foot mountain, with binoculars pressed to his face as he kept watch on Iranian military outposts perched on peaks about four miles away.

He and his comrades recounted how they ambushed an Iranian patrol between the bases a few days before, killing three soldiers and capturing another. “They were sitting and talking on top of a hill, and we approached, hiding ourselves, and fired on them from two sides,” said Bayram Gabar, who commanded the raid, and who like all the fighters here uses a nom de guerre.

The guerrillas from the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK, have been waging a deadly insurgency in Iran and they are an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, the Kurdish guerrillas who fight Turkey.

Like the PKK, the Iranian Kurds control much of the craggy, boulder-strewn frontier and routinely ambush patrols on the other side. But while the Americans call the PKK terrorists, guerrilla commanders say PJAK has had “direct or indirect discussions” with American officials. They would not divulge any details of the discussions or the level of the officials involved, but they noted that the group’s leader, Rahman Haj-Ahmadi, visited Washington last summer.

Biryar Gabar, one of 11 members of the group’s leadership, said there had been “normal dialogue” with American officials, declining specifics. One of his bodyguards said officials of the group met with Americans in Kirkuk last year.

Iranian officials have accused the United States of supplying the fighters and using them in a proxy war, though these claims were denied by the American military. “The consensus is that U.S. forces are not working with or advising the PJAK,” said an American military spokesman in Baghdad, Cmdr. Scott Rye of the Navy.

A senior American diplomat said that there had not been any official contacts with the group and that he was unaware of its having received any support from the United States. He also said that Haj-Ahmadi, while in Washington, did not meet with administration officials.

Because the PKK is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations and aiding such groups is illegal, the United States is eager to avoid any hint of cooperation with the PJAK.