Sunday, July 31, 2011

Iran's War on Iraq Border


SWUNE, Iraq— Now in Istanbul heading to New York City on Monday to start my master’s at the University of Columbia School of Journalism.

But last week, I was on my final assignment for Reuters in Iraq. I went to Swune, a village on the Iraq-Iran border that was deserted by Iran’s artillery shelling in pursuit of the Kurdish rebels in the Qandil Mountains, a range that separates northern Iraq from Iran.

It was a very strange moment when I, along with a villager and a taxi driver were at the sites which had been bombed by Iran a few hours before. The villager had reasons to fear as he had just escaped a rocket by 10 meters two days before. Chilly ideas crossed my mind too: if the Iranian soldier triggers a rocket to the same target, I would not make it to study at Columbia, my longtime dream.

But lucky was I and I believe in such situations a journalist would only have to hope that nothing bad happens.

Iranian shelling in clashes with Party for Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) guerrillas on the border with Iraq's northern region has killed two civilians and forced hundreds to flee their homes, local officials and aid agencies said on Monday.

In Swune, Iran’s bombs hit through roofs of villager’s houses, burnt farms, and even hit the primary school destroying parts of its wall and windows.

Fleeing residents had settled in makeshift tents along the roadway near their abandoned villages near the Iranian border, leaving behind farmland, livestock and homes.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Monday it was providing assistance to more than 800 displaced people in northern Iraq, all driven from their homes by the recent shelling in the mountains of Qandil.

Local Iraqi Kurdish officials have blamed Iranian bombardments for the displacements.

Ali Muhammad Ibrahim, general manager of local Sidakan Hospital, said two civilians had been killed by shelling.

Fleeing residents had settled in makeshift tents along the roadway near their abandoned villages near the Iranian border, leaving behind farmland, livestock and homes.

"There were bombs inside the village. It could happen any time. Sometimes the bombardments were at 3 a.m., sometimes in the dawn and sometimes in the evening," said Muhammad Abdullah, 26, who escaped the village of Swune near the Iranian border.

The Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration said it had also supplied a temporary clinic and relief supplies to the displaced on the border region.

Iran said on Friday a commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards was killed in an explosion during clashes with Kurdish rebels in northwestern Iran. In April, Iran reported four Iranian border guards were killed by a grenade attack.

PJAK, which has has bases in the mountains where the borders of Iran, Iraq and Turkey meet, is branded a terrorist organization by both Tehran and Washington.

Iran has pledged to step up military action against the group, which is seeking greater autonomy for Kurdish areas in the country.

But the group says that it refrains from killing civilians and is engaged in a liberation struggle for ethnic Kurds in the northwest of Iran.

But the people here are complaining against both the Iraqi and Kurdish governments for what they see as the lack of response to the border crisis that breaches of Iraq’s sovereignty in the presence of US troops.

Abdullah’s wife, Sazgar, is 9 months pregnant. She said her doctor has advised her to stay in healthy environments not in a dusty tent like where she struggles now.

“The environment has been highly polluted. Animals and humans live and sleep together. It’s so hot here. Some people have started vomiting,” said Dr. Jafar Magdid who provides first aid to the patients there.

While expressing sorrow over the life he left behind at home, Abdullah Hammed, 58, is worried that there might be bigger humanitarian consequences if Iran’s bombardment lasts longer.

“Living for one hour in your village is better than living for three years in such a place,” said Hammed. “I have a pool, farm, and fruit trees. But here I have nothing and must buy everything. How can I buy it, I am not a rich man.”

Friday, July 22, 2011

From The Mountains They Fight For A Different World

Slideshow created by Namo Abdulla.

QANDIL, Iraq--PJAK is an armed group of largely young men and women guerrillas. They control thousands of acres up in the stony mountains of northern Iraq. PJAK is an acronym for the Party for Free Life of Kurdistan. It has taken up arms to establish an autonomous zone for ethnic Kurds in northwest Iran.

Here in the no-man’s zone, PJAK fighters have a distinctive social life from elsewhere in Iraq and even the world. They have banned themselves from marriage and sex to win a struggle whose enemies are much more than its friends.

The rebels are estimated to be several thousand fighters designated as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Iran.

In the last couple of weeks, the fight between Iran and PJAK has been so intense in which the rebels claim to have killed more than a hundred Iran Revolutionary Guard soldiers. Iran rejects this figure claiming that it has dealt a big blow to the group by dismantling three of their hideouts.

This is me interviewing two PJAK guerrillas.

A more neutral source from the Iraqi Kurdish government gave me an off-the-record figure on Wednesday: 50 Iranians and at least 10 PJAK fighters have been killed.

PJAK fighters follow a philosophy written by Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—that has been in a bloody conflict with the Turkish government for more than 27 years to establish a Kurdish homeland in Turkey.

More than a week ago, just a couple of days after Iran resumed its attacks on the guerrillas, I visited one of their hideouts in Qandil Mountains. It was not an easy visit because we had to drive on a long unpaved road to bypass checkpoints setup by the Kurdistan Regional Government, which under pressure from Iran and Turkey has limited visits to those areas.

More details on the daily life of the fighters and the group’s ideology are explained in the slideshow provide above.

To read another blog on PKK guerrillas, click here:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Kurdish nationalism rises with Arab unrest, Sudan split

* Region sees inspiration from secession of South Sudan

* Kurds have oil riches, some autonomy in northern Iraq

By NAMO ABDULLA -- Reuters

ARBIL, Iraq, July 20 - On the day the newest African nation, South Sudan, was born, Iraqi Kurdish leader Barham Salih used his iPad to tweet his feelings to the world: "Watching history in (the) making as South Sudan goes independent."

"Moral of story, right to self-determination cannot be denied by genocide."

With the emergence of a new nation in Africa and uprisings against autocracies across the Arab world, Kurds in Iraq's semi-autonomous north are speaking in louder voices about the possibility of increasing autonomy if, as some Kurds fear, Iraq's central government becomes more authoritarian.

In parts of Turkey, Syria and Iran, Kurds are also seeing new possibilities of freedom beyond governments who have historically repressed their Kurdish minorities.

"There is a lot of inspiration from southern Sudan," said Salih, prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurdish flags and colours -- red, white and green -- are far more common than the red, white and black of Iraq.

"But more important is the deep concern that most of us feel about the direction of the politics of Baghdad as it goes towards centralisation and authoritarianism."

Iraq's central government and the Kurdish region -- three of Iraq's 18 provinces -- have unresolved issues over borders and oil rights. Iraqi Kurdistan has 45 billion barrels of crude reserves.

With a population of about 30 million, largely living in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, Kurds are an ethnic group whose culture and language separate them from Arabs, Turks and Persians, with whom they share land.

Largely Muslim, they have been subject to repression by other Muslims who see them as separatists.

After the first Gulf War in 1991 Western powers provided a safe haven for Iraq's Kurds, allowing them to use their natural resources to start building a modern state.

Notions of Kurdish nationalism were reinforced by the 2003 invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein as much of Iraq tumbled into sectarian warfare that threatened its survival as a single state.


"For the first time in their modern history, the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, at least, are cautiously ascending," said author Michael Gunter, who has written on the evolution of Kurds in the two countries.

He said Turkey's desire to join the European Union has forced Turkey to improve Kurdish lives in the southeast. Kurdish music is heard in Turkish cities such as Diyarbakir, and a Kurdish-language TV channel broadcasts round-the-clock.

After 27 years of conflict between Turkey and Kurdish rebels, both Kurds and Turks appear to prefer more peaceful solutions to end the hostility.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has acknowledged the existence of a Kurdish problem, long denied as a "security issue", and promised to solve it. In June elections, Kurds won 36 parliament seats, almost double their previous total.

From the streets of Syria's Qamishli, where Kurdish protesters call for freedom, to the Citadel in Arbil, where a Kurdish flag waves over Iraq's biggest boomtown, many Kurds see a promising future for pan-Kurdish nationalism.

"There is no such a thing as half-revolution," said Khalid Ali, a Syrian Kurdish activist in Arbil.

"Syrians have decided it. The toppling of Bashar al-Assad is just matter of time," he said, referring to the Syrian leader who has cracked down on pro-democracy protests. Syria blames armed groups linked to Islamists for stirring violence.

Exiled Syrian activists living in Iraqi Kurdistan are using social media tools such as Facebook, and collect donated money to support protesters at home.

"If this regime falls, it would be better for the Kurds. They will be free to work in their own regions," said Mahmoud Ya'aqub, 34, who administers Facebook groups in Arbil.

David Romano, a Middle East politics professor at Missouri State University, says the success of the Syrian revolution would have profound impact on other countries, including Iran.

"Iran will be more isolated if Syria falls," said Romano, the author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement.

From a hideout high in the Qandil Mountains, Amir Karimi, a senior anti-Iran rebel leader, espouses a more radical vision.

"If Syria falls, Iran would be the next target," he said. "Turkey would be left with two choices: Either to wipe out the Kurds completely ... or surrender to reality." (Editing by Jim Loney and Elizabeth Piper)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Peacock Worshipers


Earlier this week, I paid one of my most interesting visits to Shaikhan, a northern Iraqi town boasting one of the oldest and most distinctive religions of the world. That is the Yazidi religion.

It was a 3-hour drive going from Erbil, the capital of the oil-rich semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. After passing by a few newly discovered oil fields, I arrived at the gate that takes me to Lalish, Yazidi’s holiest place where I saw hundreds of flames. But this time they are not oil flames.

Lalish is the sole and non-duplicable shrine which Yazidis from around the world visit. It is a resemblance to Islam’s Makkah in Saudi Arabia where Muslims go on pilgrimage every year.

The security gate was created to ward off attacks from Islamic extremists who see Yazidis as “infidels” or “Satan worshipers.” Yazidis worship peacock, a bird that they see as a representation to their God or Angele.

But the security man opened the gate for me without checking. It’s perhaps due to the fact the place is under the control of Kurdistan, a region praised for its safety and religious tolerance.

In September 2007, followers of this tiny religious group living in other parts of Iraq came under most bloody attack since the US-led invasion in 2003. That attack for which Al Qaeda claimed responsibility took more than 400 lives.

However, Yazidis say their religion is much older than Islam dating back to before Prophet Abraham. They say it currently has 500,000 followers in Iraq. Yazidis exist in Europe too particularly Germany. Most of them have fled the country inthe past few years.

Yazidi religion is, indeed, distinctive from most other religions especially Islam and Christianity. As an essential difference, Yazidis don’t have missionaries as they refuse to accept anybody else converting into their religion. Yazidis should be born as Yazidis, a difference that has far reaching social consequences such as refusing to allow inter-religious marriages.

On the other hand, just like how it’s in Islam, a Yazidi can’t switch their religion to another religion; doing so would lead to the converted person be damned, if not killed.

When it comes to praying, Yazidis practice prayer three times a day: At sunrise, at sunset and at night (before going to sleep).

Each time before they pray, they set more than 300 fires in wall holes, as a sign to the fact that Yazidis have a special respect to fire. Yazidi is said to have been the religion for all Kurds before Islam conquered the area.

Like Yazidis, Kurds, who are now overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, have special respect to fire. On March 20, Kurdish New Year’s Eve, Kurds set big fires on high places such as citadels and mountains to celebrate Nawroz.

One interesting thing that I realized while I was at Lalish was that everybody I met there was barefoot. However, I was allowed to be wearing my shoes except when going to the actual temple, which includes an old stone-made house and a water cave.

Fresh and drinkable water stemming from the mountains flows through the cave 24/7.

In addition to praying, Yazidis are a strong believer of fortune telling. Inside the temple, men and women throw a piece of cloth onto a smooth stone placed high on the shrine’s wall. Everybody can only throw the cloth three times; the lucky person is the one whose piece stays on the stone at least once,