Michael Totten

Fire From the Mountain

My Israeli colleague Jonathan Spyer likes to go where few other Israelis dare—first to Hezbollah territory in South Lebanon, and now to the Qandil Mountains in Iraq where the Marxist-Leninist PKK has dug for war against Turkey.

Our PKK contact and driver arrived at the appointed time outside the hotel in Erbil. We had been told he would identify himself using an agreed term. We hadn’t quite been ready for the fact that this single word would be the sole communication possible between us. The diminutive, scrawny youth who turned up at six that morning knew neither English nor Arabic.

Only Kurdish. That was how we began our journey from the Iraqi Kurdish capital toward the Qandil mountains, in the remote border area between Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

It is in these mountains that the guerrillas of the Parti Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) live and wage their 26- year-old war against Turkey. They offer ideal terrain for guerrilla fighters. Accessible only through a network of narrow, near impenetrable passes, the mountains serve as a launching ground for the PKK and the allied Iranian Kurdish PEJAK into their respective areas of operation.

The writ of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government has little purchase in the Qandil area. The PKK is the de facto ruling authority.

Our contact from the Kurdish regional government in Erbil cheerfully wished us luck on the eve of our departure – and told us not to bother calling him if we got into trouble. There was, he said with a broad smile, “absolutely nothing he could do” in such a situation.


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