US wages covert war on Iraq-Iran
border By Nelson Rand
SIDIKAN and IRBIL, northern Iraq - The
United States-led war in Iraq has hardly affected
the residents of Sidikan, a small Kurdish town
nestled in the mountains where the borders of
Iraq, Iran and Turkey converge, but the
surrounding area has fast become the frontline of
In recent weeks,
residents say, Iranian artillery shells have been
heard almost daily, raining down on the nearby
hills where anti-Tehran guerrillas of the Party
for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) are
on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border. Since
August, thousands of Kurdish villagers on the
Iraqi side of the frontier have been forced to
flee their homes as a result of the barrage.
"Iran is creating a lot of problems for
the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG]," said the
chief of security police in the nearby town of
Soran, who only revealed his first name, Gafar.
"Border areas are being shelled every day." The
KRG is the governing authority of the
predominantly Kurdish region of northern Iraq, or
Seeking permission from
his office to enter PJAK-controlled areas of Iraqi
Kurdistan, Gafar told this correspondent that an
executive order had been given at the beginning of
November to forbid anybody going into such areas.
This was followed by an official order announced
on November 19 by the KRG banning journalists from
traveling to bases of the Turkish Kurdistan
Workers' Party (PKK), also in Iraqi Kurdistan,
prompting strong criticism from media watchdogs
such as Reporters Without Borders.
"Kurdistan is one of few regions in Iraq
where local and foreign journalists can move about
freely without constant risk to their lives," the
group said in a statement on November 20. "This
ban is a serious violation of their ability to
report on the clashes in Iraq between the PKK's
fighters and the Turkish army."
PKK has been in the international spotlight in
recent weeks, with Turkey mounting cross-border
raids and threatening to launch an invasion of
Iraq, not so much attention has been given to the
Iranian offshoot, the PJAK. The group has been
waging an insurgency against Tehran since 2004,
which recently has escalated. A guerrilla leader
told the New York Times last month that PJAK
fighters had killed at least 150 Iranian soldiers
and officials in Iran since August.
accuses Washington of backing the group, and while
the US denies this, local and foreign intelligence
sources say the accusation is most likely true.
According to a former US Special Forces (SF)
commando currently based in Iraq who spoke on
condition of anonymity, Special Forces troops are
currently operating inside Iran, working with
insurgent forces like the PJAK. "That's what the
SF does," he said. "They train and build up
indigenous anti-government forces."
primary function of the Special Forces is to stand
up guerrilla forces or counter-guerrilla forces,"
said another former SF soldier, retired Major Mark
Smith. While he was not specifically aware of SF
teams training the PJAK, he said it would not be
surprising if they were. And "they would be
training in an obscure border area or in a
location denied to anyone not directly involved",
He added that SF teams in Iran
would be conducting strategic reconnaissance of
possible nuclear and biological weapons sites,
army headquarters, and significant individuals.
"If they're not doing these things in Iran, then
they are remiss in their duties at the upper
echelons of their command," he said.
Operatives of the US Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) have also been spotted in Iraqi
Kurdistan recently, according to sources familiar
with the agency, including the former SF commando.
These sources explained that the agency's Special
Activities Division (SAD) would be conducting the
main component of the agency's operations in the
area. SAD, whose existence became known in the
autumn of 2001, is responsible for covert
paramilitary operations - those with which the US
government does not want to be overtly associated.
During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, a
SAD operative, Johnny Michael Spann, was the first
American casualty of the war. Their unofficial
motto is: "Admit nothing, deny everything, and
make counter accusations."
When asked if
CIA operatives were working in the border areas of
the Sidikan region, police chief Gafar replied
with a smile: "I am allowed to say no, but I am
not allowed to say yes."
With or without
US support, the PJAK poses a direct challenge to
Iran's security. Claiming to have over 4,000
members, it is one of the largest - if not the
largest - opposition group in the country. Expert
in hit-and-run tactics, PJAK has proven to be a
formidable force, launching daring raids and even
shooting down an Iranian helicopter in September,
according to the New York Times.
leaders claim to be receiving a steady flow of
recruits from Iran's 3.7 million Kurds, who
complain of cultural discrimination and of being
economically depressed, despite inhabiting
Unlike its PKK cousins,
the PJAK is not fighting for an independent
Kurdish homeland. Rather, it is fighting for
regime change - to replace Iran's theocracy with a
democratic and highly federalized system that
would grant autonomous rights not only to Kurds,
but also to Azeri, Baloch and Arab regions of the
A major component of its struggle
is to empower the Iranian population - and in
particular women. According to the group's
charter, 12 of the 21 members of the PJAK's
elected legislature must be women, as well as
three of the seven members of the leadership
council. In addition, leaders say 45% of the group
Although the PJAK is
administratively, militarily and politically
separate from the PKK, the two groups have strong
ties and share allegiance to Abdullah Ocalan, the
PKK leader imprisoned in Turkey. PJAK bases are
also located within PKK-controlled areas of Iraqi
Kurdistan, making the former susceptible to both
Turkish military might and policies of the
Kurdistan Regional Government.
As the KRG
is delicately trying to please the Turks by
cutting off links with the PKK (listed as a
terrorist group by the United States and Turkey),
the PJAK is feeling the heat as well because of
its proximity, both geographically and
politically, to the PKK. A PJAK representative in
Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, refused to
be interviewed for this article, saying the
group's Irbil office had been shut down at the
beginning of November and that he had been
instructed by his leadership not to talk to
anybody and to keep a low profile until further
Sources in Irbil also said
government checkpoints were refusing to allow
wounded PJAK guerrillas from entering its
territory to seek medical treatment, which until
recently was standard procedure.
likely support from the United States and the
possibility of a US-led strike on Iran, these
temporary constraints appear mere hiccups in an
otherwise healthy geopolitical environment for the
guerilla group. The PJAK seems destined for
anything but demise.
As for the residents
of Sidikan, who are within striking distance of
both the Turkish and Iranian militaries, their
future may not be as bright.
Rand is a freelance journalist based in
Thailand. He has a master's degree in Asia-Pacific
Policy Studies and is the author of the
forthcoming book Into the Fire: Journeys
through war and conflict in Southeast Asia.