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 another conflict.
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
based 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 Iraqi Kurdistan.
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
"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."
While the 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
Iran 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."
"The 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 said.
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
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
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.
PJAK 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 oil-rich lands.
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 country.
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 are women.
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 notice.
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
But with 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.
Nelson 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.