Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Iran Tests Iraqi Resolve at the Border

By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS and NAMO ABDULLA - The New York Times

About 200 Kurdish families live in a refugee camp near their now-deserted Iraqi villages of Ali Rash and Sharkhan, near the border with Iran. Photo by Holly Pickett


ALI RASH, Iraq — This remote village high in the rugged mountains along the border with Iran has been deserted, its people having fled Iranian air and artillery bombardments with everything they could carry and whatever livestock that could be coaxed down the steep mountain trails.

Now the hundreds of Kurds who left Ali Rash and other mountain villages are living in sweltering refugee camp tents. They are at the center of questions about whether Iraq is willing or able to defend its borders with Iran — which has repeatedly breached the frontier in recent months.

The attacks on Ali Rash and at least a dozen other Kurdish villages have continued for more than a month and have included a foray by Iranian tanks one mile into Iraqi territory. But they have elicited only a tepid protest from Iraq’s government, including the release of a statement pleading with neighboring countries to honor its borders.

The Iranian government has said its bombing campaigns are necessary to weaken Kurdish guerrillas that strike in Iran and take refuge in Iraq. The only confirmed casualty has been a 14-year-old girl.

The incursions, though, come at a critical time for Iraq — amid the political stalemate over who should lead the next government more than three months after a divided electorate cast ballots, and less than three months before the American military is scheduled to withdraw its last combat soldier from the country.

United States forces continue to patrol portions of Iraq’s 910-mile frontier with Iran, but in the Qandil Mountain villages that have suffered the brunt of the Iranian offensive, there are no American, Iraqi or Kurdish soldiers — and the refugees say they are getting little help.

“We have been left on our own,” said Bahar Ibrahim, 27, a refugee from Ali Rash, who is eight months pregnant.

In the villages of Ali Rash and Sharkhan, craters from Iranian munitions dot the ground in pastures and around crude stone houses.

Dr. Kamal Kadr examined a 6-week-old girl while her mother watched at the camp. Iran has breached the frontier in recent months. Photo by Holly Pickett



The hundreds of people who lived in the villages are now in refugee camps. Only a few stray horses remain. Even the honeybees have been taken to safer places. On the hillsides, where villagers grew wheat, the ground is scorched black.

The shelling here continues a trend of Iranian border incursions during the past 13 months that have included a helicopter attack on Kurdish villages in northern Iraq last May, and the occupation by Iranian soldiers of part of the Fakka oil field in southeastern Iraq for three days last December.

Last month, Iranian troops engaged in a firefight with the pesh merga, the Kurdish security forces, along the frontier before capturing and briefly detaining a pesh merga soldier. Iranian forces said they had misidentified the soldier as a member of the guerrilla group, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, more commonly known by its abbreviation, P.J.A.K.

The P.J.A.K., which is seeking greater Kurdish self-determination in Iran, and its sibling group, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K., which is fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, use remote outposts in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region to carry out attacks, according to the Iranian and Turkish governments.

Turkey also bombs border areas in Iraq in pursuit of rebels. On Wednesday, clashes were reported between Turkish troops and P.K.K. fighters, which led to the deaths of four guerrillas and a Turkish soldier. Afterward, the Turkish military said it had dropped bombs in Iraq’s Kurdish region and its soldiers had crossed more than one mile into Iraq to pursue guerrillas. The Kurdish guerrilla groups have been listed as terrorist organizations by the United States government, though the P.J.A.K. has had contact with American officials as recently as four years ago.

The P.J.A.K. maintains that its attacks into Iran have been justified.

“We never kill civilians,” said Haval Kalhwr, a P.J.A.K. spokesman. “We are engaged in a defensive war which is internationally defined as legal.”

Officials in Iraq’s Kurdish region have criticized Baghdad for not doing more to persuade the authorities in Iran to halt the attacks. The Kurdish regional officials here also deny that they harbor guerrillas.

“The bombardment has continued, which means that the Iraqi government has not taken a serious position on this matter,” said Twana Ahmad, a spokesman for Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government.

Iran has announced several times during the past six weeks that it has halted the bombing, only to resume it a day or so later, according to residents of the village and Kurdish officials.

Kurdish refugees say that because the bombs have burned their wheat fields and killed livestock, even when the bombardment ends it will be years before the villages will be economically secure again.

In the meantime, they get water from relief agencies and buy food from itinerant traders who charge twice the price found in markets.

Some have been living in tents for weeks, and health officials say unsanitary conditions in the camps may lead to the outbreak of disease.

Sabria Salih, 26, who has an 8-month-old child, said Ali Rash — the village she fled from more than four weeks ago — had come under heavy attack from Iranian forces.

“We have left almost everything behind,” she said. “We have only some blankets.”

She said the Iranian government was mistaken if it believed that the villagers were hiding guerrillas.

“No P.J.A.K. has been killed or injured in the attacks,” she said. “And no one has ever seen P.J.A.K. in our village.”

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