MAKHMUR: Washington has acquired an unlikely ally in its battle against Islamic State militants in Iraq – a group of fighters it formally classifies as terrorists.
The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), condemned for its three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state, says it played a decisive role in blunting the militants’ sweep through Iraq, which triggered US air strikes to halt their advance.
“This war will continue until we finish off the Islamic State,” said Rojhat, a PKK fighter speaking from a hospital bed in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in Iraq.
The involvement of the PKK has consequences not only for rival Kurdish factions who failed to stop the Islamic State’s advance, but also for Turkey and the international community, which is being lobbied by the PKK to drop the terrorist tag.
Rojhat, 33, was wounded for a third time in the battle to retake the northern Iraqi town of Makhmur from the Islamic State after the militants - deemed too extreme even for al Qaeda - routed the region’s vaunted Kurdish peshmerga forces.
The first two times he was fighting Turkish forces, part of a conflict which killed 40,000 people between its beginnings in 1984 with demands for Kurdish independence from Turkey and a ceasefire in March 2013.
His role highlights the challenge the PKK represents for Ankara, which still views it as terrorist but feels seriously threatened by the Islamic State, which has seized dozens of its citizens and decapitated an American hostage this week.
Thanks to Rojhat and his comrades-in-arms, residents of Makhmur who fled in terror at an onslaught that threatened Arbil, 60km away, are now returning to assess the damage.
They have already sprayed over graffiti that reads: “the Islamic State is here to stay”.
“This is not just about Makhmur: this is about Kurdistan,” said PKK commander Sadiq Goyi, seated beneath a banner of the group’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, referring to Kurdish-inhabited land in Syria and Iran as well as Turkey and Iraq. “Islamic State is a danger to everyone, so we must fight them everywhere”. An armed sister group of the PKK - People’s Defence Units (YPG) - has carved out an autonomous zone in Syria’s northeast, successfully fending off attacks by IS militants who have proclaimed a caliphate straddling the frontier with Iraq.
When the militants overran peshmerga positions in northwestern Iraq, YPG fighters crossed over from Syria and evacuated thousands of minority Yazidis left stranded on a mountain with scant food and water.
“The PKK is our hero,” said 26-year-old Hussein, one of hundreds of Yazidis being trained by YPG fighters at several camps inside Syria to fight the Islamic State.
PKK commanders say guerrillas have been dispatched to the front line in the cities of Kirkuk and Jalawla as well. They declined to give numbers and fierce fighting makes their statements hard to verify.
Turkish security forces began clearing villages suspected of sympathising with the PKK during the 1990s, displacing thousands of Kurds, some of whom fled to Iraq and eventually settled in a camp in Makhmur, recently turned into a base for PKK guerrillas. The word “Apo”, nickname for Ocalan, is scrawled on walls around the camp, which held more than 10,000 residents until the Islamic State’s incursion. A lone pair of socks still dangles from a washing line and unpicked grapes have begun to shrivel on the vine. The thud of artillery can be heard from the new front line with the Islamic state, several kilometres away.
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