Iraq reassures Turkey on PKK threat but challenges remain
LONDON - Top Iraqi officials pledged to prevent attacks against Turkey by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants inside Iraq but reining in the activities of the terror-designated group remains difficult as it is often out of the reach of security forces.
“Iraqi security forces have been instructed not to allow the presence of foreign fighters in the border region,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in a phone conversation.Abadi stressed that he rejected any “violation” against Turkey through Iraqi territory and Yildirim assured Abadi that Turkey would not “launch operations without Iraqi government consent,” read a statement from the Iraqi prime minister’s office.
Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), also condemned PKK attacks against Turkey.
“Why has Turkey crossed the border? What is the reason? There is a reason,” Barzani said in a speech in Erbil. Barzani vowed that the KRG would not allow “its soil to be used to attack or make conflict with neighbouring countries. This principle includes attacks on Turkey, Iran, Syria or any other countries.”
“We have tried and told the PKK, ‘You cannot use the Kurdistan region’s soil to launch military attacks on Turkey and then return to Kurdistan.’ It doesn’t make sense and we have asked them several times,” said Barzani.
The KRG’s peshmerga have clashed with the PKK but the Iraqi Kurdish fighters do not appear to have the firepower to expel the outlawed militants.
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said he would like to see an end to PKK presence in Sinjar.
“The PKK, as you know, is a designated terrorist organisation by the United States. They have killed innocent Turks,” said Mattis, “And we are intending to see them (PKK) pull out of the Sinjar area. [That] would be our… intention here.”
Turkey, which often carries out air strikes against PKK hideouts in Iraq, threatened to send ground troops to clear the Iraqi area of Sinjar of the Kurdish militants. PKK militants fled the area following the Turkish threat and Baghdad deployed Iraqi troops to take charge of security there.
The PKK gained a foothold in Sinjar when its forces aided Iraq’s Yazidi community after Kurdish peshmerga fighters fled during an Islamic State (ISIS) attack. ISIS militants, who slaughtered and enslaved the Yazidis, were eventually driven out of Sinjar after a series of military offensives by peshmerga forces backed by US air cover and by the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Before fleeing, the PKK had its own militia in Sinjar, the People’s Defence Forces. The PKK-affiliated Yazidi militia, Sinjar Resistance Units, whose salaries, arms and training used to come from Baghdad as it became included under the PMF umbrella, remained in the area because it is made up of locals.
Many Yazidis complained about the conscription of their children by the PKK, as reported by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2016 and the United Nations in 2017. The recruitment or use of children under 15 is a war crime under international law.
Some residents told HRW they stopped sending their children to school out of fear that they would be abducted or recruited by the PKK.
“Once they joined up, some children were not allowed to leave. In the worst the HRW found, witnesses described the recapture and brutal beating by fighters of a 13-year-old Yazidi girl who had argued with her commander and tried to escape,” wrote Zama Neff, executive director of children’s rights division at HRW.
“Residents of Sardashti, a town in Sinjar, told the HRW they found her limping along a road with a broken leg, pleading for help. They tried to help her, but her former sisters-in-arms tracked her down and took her away,” added Neff.
The Yazidi community is itself split in its affiliations but it appears that the PKK has outstayed its welcome in Sinjar.
“In interviews Yazidis in Sinjar repeatedly and spontaneously compared the Kurdish group with [ISIS] on the issue of child recruitment and indicated that the People’s Defence Forces is wearing out its welcome,” wrote Neff.
While the PKK is no longer present in Sinjar, the threat it poses to Turkey, as well as to Iraqi children, remains in other areas. The group has a presence in several Kurdish villages and its headquarters is in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains, which have been out of reach of federal or peshmerga forces since the 1990s.
Kurdish militants, including child soldiers, continue to be exposed to PKK indoctrination there as they train on how to attack Turkey, prompting retaliation from Ankara.
Baghdad is strongly opposed to Ankara’s intervention in Iraq but if it can’t stop PKK militants from using Iraqi territories to attack Turkey then the two countries are likely to be engaged in renewed diplomatic disputes.