Asharq Al-Awsat, Qandil Mountains – For the past two years the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] has imposed a complete media blackout on the Qandil Mountains in compliance with Turkish pressure; therefore no news media has been able to reach this area. However Asharq Al-Awsat’s insistence upon receiving the news it conveys from first-hand and reliable sources caused it to attempt the perilous journey to reach this region. Asharq Al-Awsat reached the Qandil Mountains via an unofficial route which was used in the past by local smugglers travelling to and from Iran. The path was extremely rough, and it took almost an hour to reach the Qandil Mountains. Asharq Al-Awsat was concerned with one thing in particular, and that is confirming the KRG’s claims that it is militarily impossible to eradicate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] fighters, and Free Life Party of Kurdistan [PJAK] fighters from this area. Approaching the PJAK stronghold in the Qandil Mountains, Asharq Al-Awsat can confirm that the roads in this area cannot be used by military vehicles, and that for the most part pack animals, specifically mules, are utilized to deliver food and supplies to the headquarters of these two movements.
Asharq Al-Awsat met with the PJAK commander Shirzad Kamanger at the movement’s headquarters in the Qandil Mountains, and immediately asked him “Iran is using the pretext of your presence to shell areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, and in journalism we must cite the location where this interview took place, however this is something that we also fear to do as we do not want to cause you any trouble, especially since you say that you do not launch anti-Iranian activities from Kurdish territory, so how do you think we can solve this dilemma?”
Commander Kamanger replied “Don’t worry. It is true that we are present close to the PKK in the Qandil Mountains, and this mountain links the borders of Iran, Iraq and Turkey and has long been a centre for Kurdish revolutions and a stronghold for revolutionary forces. In principle we do not recognize artificial borders drawn by the forces of imperialism and colonialism and countries hostile to the Kurdish people. However in spite of this, let me confirm to you that we do not use this territory for military operations against Iran or Turkey. This is our political headquarters, and as you see, we are not in a certain village, but we constructed these huts in an isolated and remote area, and the only operations or activity that we conduct here is political. As for our forces, they are present inside the Iranian border, in Ilam, Kermanshah, Mukryan, Khoy, Radaya, and Salmas, which are all areas located within 100 km of the Iraqi border.”
From the press coverage of PJAK military operations, Asharq Al-Awsat noticed that PJAK’s military operations against the Iranian regime primarily take place deep inside Iran, and until now PJAK has not launched any military attack [against Iran] in the border region, or within the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan. Asharq Al-Awsat also noticed that the PJAK headquarters in the Qandil Mountains was nothing more than three mud houses build under the cover of trees to prevent it from being targeted from the air, and that at the time of this interview no more than 10 figures could be seen inside the PJAK headquarters, the majority of whom being women fighters.
The Free Life Party of Kurdistan or PJAK has been fighting a bitter struggle against Iran since its foundation in 2004. Speaking about the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the party, Commander Kamanger told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the Kurdish people were in need of a revolutionary party that put forward a new vision for revolutionary activity, for the classical parties in the struggle failed to make any gains for the people, while day after day Iran continued to intensify its antagonistic policy against the Kurdish people with regards to arrests, execution campaigns, and torture in prison. Due to such circumstances we decided to establish a new party to fill the existing vacuum. We extensively benefited from the experiences of other Kurdish parties in the other parts of Kurdistan. This is what helped us achieve many military victories against the Iranian organs of repression and against its army, and this began to impose a new reality in the arena of Iranian Kurdistan.”
The Kurdish commander stressed that his party is no rival to the revolutionary parties that exist within Iran, and he also denied that PJAK is a wing of the PKK. In response to a question by Asharq Al-Awsat as to whether PJAK is the Iranian wing of the PKK, as the majority of political and intelligence experts claim, Kamanger responded by saying “we adopt the philosophy, ideas, and approach of the leader Apo [in reference to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan]…but we are not a wing or a part of the PKK. We are the same as any other communist party that adopts the Marxist ideology, and these include Maoism, Leninist, and other parties, however the unifying factor is Marxism.” He reiterated “we share the same ideology and viewpoint with the PKK, but are not a part of it. We are linked to the PKK in terms of our shared struggle, as we are with other Kurdish parties. We are also prepared to defend this party, or any part of greater Kurdistan, if it is subject to threat or danger, but we are now concentrating our operations in the western part of Kurdistan, which is the Iranian part.”
Asharq Al-Awsat also asked Kamanger “Iran and Turkey disagree about everything, except for their hostility towards PJAK and the PKK, and you say that there is cooperation and coordination between Ankara and Tehran in their war on these two groups. So why are you so embarrassed about admitting that PJAK and the PKK are both different wings of the same party?”
Kamanger answered “we are not embarrassed at saying this publicly, however unfortunately there is some ambiguity in the public’s view of us, and there confusion surrounding the true nature of our party. The PKK is entitled to call for a unified Kurdistan, and it is free to raise any slogan that it chooses, including the slogan of liberating Greater Kurdistan. However we in the PJAK look at the current situation realistically and we are well aware that the international situation do not allow for this dream to be fulfilled. We believe in the philosophy and ideology of leader Apo, but there is no organic link between us and the PKK, we are fighting in the eastern part [of greater Kurdistan] and have adopted an approach that is different from the approach followed by others. Our situation in Iran is different…as it the nature of the regime [we are fighting against]. As I said, we have ideology, however from the political and organizational viewpoint, there is no connection between us [PJAK] and them [PKK].”
Asharq Al-Awsat also asked Kamanger “Does the PJAK have fighters from other areas of Kurdistan, i.e. Turkish Kurdistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, etc?”
Kamanger acknowledged that PJAK included fighters from many different regions of Kurdistan, although he stressed that “our struggle is centred in Iranian Kurdistan, but if the interests of the Kurdish people in any other part of Kurdistan were under threat or in danger, we would not hesitate to defend them. Do you think we would accept another Halabja [poison gas attack under Saddam Hussein] to take place in Iraqi Kurdistan? Should we accept new crimes of genocide being committed against our people in any other part of Kurdistan? Of course this is unacceptable, because we – in principle – do not accept artificial borders, and we consider the Kurdish people to be one. Accordingly, we have repeatedly called for the unification of the Kurdish people, and we will continue to call for this unity to confront the regimes that seek to eliminate our national existence.”
As for whether PJAK represent a problem for the KRG leadership, Kamanger told Asharq Al-Awsat “I don’t think so; we monitor what is happening in the Kurdistan region. There are some parties that view our presence as a problem, but the Kurdish people do not view us like this, and in fact we believe that public awareness in the region has reached an advanced stage, and this is something that we can sense in the local media. When Iran executed a number of our party members recently, we found widespread public condemnation from our people in southern Kurdistan, and the people of Kurdistan have demonstrated deep sympathy towards us.”
However Asharq Al-Awsat pointed out that PJAK’s presence must represent a problem because the Kurdistan region is constitutionally a part of Iraq, and so PJAK’s military operations against Iran violate international law, and are being used by Tehran as a pretext to bombard the Kurdistan region, something that only increases the tension between Iran and Iraq. The PJAK commander responded to this by saying “Firstly, let me tell you that anybody who considers our presence here a problem is fooling himself because the military attacks and the shelling and bombardment are not targeting PJAK or the PKK. There were Iranian military operations and shelling and bombardment prior to the establishment of our party in 2004, were we also the cause of this? In spite of this, we are aware of the KRG’s concern, and we are trying not to cause it any problems, and are taking into account the domestic and regional situation. However it would be a mistake for the KRG to consider us a cause of the problems, and this is something that would lead them to make other mistakes. We should also not forget that Iran today is flagrantly interfering in all Iraqi affairs, and it even has a hand in the formation of the Iraqi government…and so Iran has a considerable influence in Iraq. Therefore why should we be surprised by its attempts to put pressure on the KRG leadership through bombardment and military operations, and then place the blame for this on us? I have already said that we do not undertake any military operations whatsoever from the Kurdistan region.”
As for the recent events within Iran, from the public protests, and PJAK’s role in this, Kamanger said “what happened in Iran last year was a turning point in the public’s uprising against the Islamic regime, and this is an important development that has not been seen in thirty years. The problem is that this uprising was lacking in unified or qualified leadership to lead this popular movement, and so it faded. As for our role as an opposition party, we in principle do not believe in the slogans or approach of coup d’état, despite the fact that the Iranian regime lost its legitimacy due to the protests [against it] whether this is the negative protests, or the people taking to the streets. We believe that fundamental change should come from the people, however the people need leadership, and the Iranian popular movement is suffering from a lack of this, for without this [leadership], the desired change is impossible to achieve.”
Asharq Al-Awsat mentioned the presence of opposition leaders Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, to which the PJAK commander responded that “Mousavi and Karroubi are part of the regime. It is true that they have a definite desire to achieve change, but they failed to attract the Iranian street, and to lead the protests. It is true that this began initially as objection to Ahmadinejad’s candidacy, but in essence this was targeting the heart of the regime. As I said before, the problem of this [protest] movement was in the lack of a unified and qualified leadership…and this is what caused this movement to fade. This is why we called for a large national front to be formed that includes all Iranian political forces to lead the upcoming stage [of protests].”
As for the Iranian troops who were deployed along the border, and whether he expects Iran to launch a military offensive against the PKK and PJAK, Kamanger told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the troops continue to have a presence along the border, and the recent bombardment and military penetration is a message to the world, and Iran flexing its muscles at a time that it is facing international pressures due to its nuclear project.” Kamanger also said that “I would like to say that PJAK, as a party, have not until now declared war on Iran, rather it was Iran who declared war on us. Iran is attempting – by winning over Turkey to this war – to change the regional balance and make its presence felt in the region in order to draw the world’s attention to the border region. The other goal from this Iranian military action is to weaken the Kurdish influence in Baghdad, for Iran is trying to weaken the KRG in order force it to side with the Shiites. Notice that with the crisis over the formation of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the Iranian forces began its bombardment that reaches the point of military infiltration. Believe me, the feeble excuse about our presence [causing this] are not credible. As I said, our military activities are primarily centred within Iran, so why doesn’t Iran attack our forces within its territory, especially as they located in Kermanshah, Ilam, Khoy, Salmas, and elsewhere. We are present in these areas, so the Iranian’s should bombard our sites there, instead of deploying to the border and shelling civilians in order to put pressure on the KRG. Are you aware that Iran shelled buildings belonging to the Kurdistan Democratic Party that is led by Mr. [Massoud] Barzani? Are we present inside the headquarters of this party?”
The PJAK commander also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Iran is attempting to draw Turkey into the war along the border, in an attempt to draw Turkey away from American influence and its anti-Iranian policies. Everybody knows that it would be backbreaking for Iran if Turkey were to abandon it at this particular stage because Iran does not have any other ally other than Turkey. Therefore by making sweet promises about exterminating the PKK that opposes it to Turkey, it is attempting to involve Turkey in a joint war against this party [PKK] and our party [PJAK] as well. We believe that if Iran is successful in this, this would be something that threatens the very existence of the Kurdistan region as a whole. Iran is trying to win over Turkey by showing its willingness to eradicate the PKK from the Qandil Mountains, but image that we and the PKK did not have any presence in the Qandil Mountains, wouldn’t it have turned into a stronghold for extremist Islamist parties Ansar al-Islam. This would be extremely likely, and the presence of such extremist parties would be a major threat on the Kurdistan region, and our current presence [in the Qandil Mountains] is what prevents this from happening, and protects the Kurdistan region from the evils of extremist Islamist parties.”
Asharq Al-Awsat also asked commander Kamanger “Turkey is waging a fierce war – with US support – against the PKK, and this has resulted in the PKK being placed on the list of international terrorist organizations, and caused the movement to have financing problems. Since Turkey is a US ally, while the US considers Iran an enemy, why doesn’t the PJAK attempt to take advantage of this and establish relations with the US in favour of your agenda?
Kamanger answered by saying “We principally rely upon domestic support from our people, but this does not preclude us from extending our hands to any country or power that wants to help us to achieve democratic change in Iran. Although many of our revolutions have fallen victim to international interests, we are prepared to enter into negotiations with any country that wants to help us, and the US was among the countries that was seeking to do this, however the negotiations between us failed after the first meeting between us and them because of the conditions they wanted to impose on us, something that we completely rejected.”
As for the specifics of these conditions, Kamanger told Asharq Al-Awsat “The US wanted to use us as pawns in its war against Iran, using us at any time that it wants, but we rejected this, because we are nobody’s servants, except for our people who back us.”
Asharq Al-Awsat reminded the PJAK commander that the situation is now different, and that PJAK originally met with the Americans in 2004, when Iran did not possess such a large influence in Iraq, and when Iran was not such a source of trouble to the international community as a whole. Asharq Al-Awsat asked Kamanger if there was any possibility of PJAK reconsidering its possession and agreeing to cooperate with the US today. He answered “it is true that the political situation [today] is different than the previous stage, but do not forget that the US has placed our party on the US Treasury Department’s list of terrorist groups at a time that it also considers Iran to be a terrorist country. Our party is struggling to fulfil the wishes of our people, and this is something that is guaranteed by international law. We blame the international media for ignoring our party and its political activities. We changed our political rhetoric some time ago, and we now believe that Iran’s problems are not just due to its nuclear project or the threat it represents to the world, and there are a number of problems that we are suffering in Iran due to the current Iranian regime; there is the problem of democracy, human rights, women’s rights, and the rights of minorities, and therefore anybody who wants to help us to achieve our goals and solve our internal problems is very welcome. Our doors are open to everyone, but without imposing preconditions for cooperation.”
In answer to a question about the reason why PJAK leader Abdul Rahman Haji Ahmadi – who was recently subject to attempts to secure his arrest and extradition – has not returned to Kurdistan to lead the party’s struggle, Kamanger told Asharq Al-Awsat that “some people are ignorant of the nature of the leadership in our party. In our party we rely upon group leadership, and Ahmadi is present in Europe to lead the political activity. Europe is important to us, especially in managing our diplomatic affairs and relations. Whereas here [in Kurdistan] we have a military leadership that is leading the party’s struggle, and we both compliment and complete each other. If we thought that there was a need for Ahmadi to return, he would definitely do so, but we prefer that he remains there [in Europe] now to lead the political component of the party.”
As for the issue of foreign aid, and the accusations that PJAK are receiving assistance from Israel, the PJAK commander told Asharq Al-Awsat that “this has always been a prepared accusation, and something that people attribute their political and military failures to. We in the Kurdish movement have gotten used to such accusations that label us as being agents [for another power], or wanting to secede…however we are not in need of military aid from any country. This is because we live in the Middle East, and it is easy for anybody here to purchase any kind of weapon he wants. For instance, in Iraq one can buy any weapon one desires, we are nobody’s servants, and this is why we refuse any cooperation that comes with preconditions. We rely on our own people, although we do not rule out cooperating with any country or party that supports our legitimate struggle.”