Into the Blacksnake's Lair

Murat Karayilan prefers to travel in darkness. Under cover of a starry night, his white Nissan Path-finder crawls up a narrow gravel road in Iraq's mountainous far north to a typical-looking village house. Karayilan--his name is Turkish for "blacksnake"--is a hunted man. To the east, Iran's anti-U.S. leaders would like nothing better than to see the Kurdish guerrilla commander jailed or dead. To the west, America's longtime allies in the Turkish government feel the same. The State Department lists his group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), as a terrorist organization. "We are not terrorists," the Blacksnake tells NEWSWEEK, seated in a sparsely furnished room with a stone floor. "The U.S. has seen us through the eyes of our enemies. We want you to see us as friends."

That's not easy. Even as U.S. forces struggle against rising chaos and violence elsewhere in Iraq, the fear now is that the north could also be engulfed, thanks to Kurdish separatists' use of Iraqi soil as a staging area for their war against the Turks and the Iranians. The rebels see themselves as standing up against centuries of often brutal repression. This year the Blacksnake's guerrillas have staged more than 250 attacks on Turkey, in one bloody week killing 14 Turkish soldiers, a toll unmatched since a decade ago, at the height of the separatist conflict. Ankara keeps threatening to send its troops into Iraq to root out the rebels. Meanwhile, a PKK-affiliated group in Iraq is picking fights with Iran. In recent weeks the violence has escalated, as everyone tries to inflict as much damage as possible before winter snows interrupt the fighting.

There is no authority but the PKK in its corner of Iraq. To get there you climb a winding road where even the shepherds carry AK-47s, into the Qandil Mountains, a stretch of high peaks straddling the borderlands of Iraq, Turkey and Iran. The last Iraqi government checkpoint is at the foot of the mountains, guarded by soldiers from Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government. It flies the flag of Iraqi Kurdistan, a yellow sunburst on a field of green, white and red. The flag at the next checkpoint, almost two miles above sea level, belongs to the PKK: a red star on a yellow sun outlined in green. Armed guerrillas make sure no one goes farther without permission from PKK central command. Around the bend, an immense portrait has been painted on the rocky hillside--the face of Abdullah Ocalan, the group's founder.

Ocalan created the PKK in the 1970s as a Kurdish national liberation movement against Turkish rule. The Kurdish-speaking people, whose homelands stretch from Iran to Syria and eastern Turkey, have never had a country all their own. In the 1980s, the PKK's fighters reportedly hung out with Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and made pilgrimages to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, then a hive of anti-U.S. terrorism. By the time Ocalan was captured in 1999, his war had claimed some 37,000 lives.

Karayilan has set a very different tone. He spoke glowingly to NEWSWEEK about democracy and human rights and "Mr. Bush's new Middle East project." He says his 7,000 armed fighters could be a valuable ally for the United States against Islamic fundamentalism. Not to mention Iran. The Free Life Party (PJAK, pronounced "peshak"), a two-year-old offshoot of Karayilan's group, claims some 1,500 guerrillas along the Iranian border from Azerbaijan to Iraq. American forces in Iraq have steered clear of the group, at least in public. "We have the same enemy as the U.S., but they do not extend help to us," PJAK's leader, Abdul Rahman Haji Ahmadi, told NEWSWEEK in a phone interview from his exile home in Germany.

The Blacksnake's guerrillas remain on the terrorist list. Washington recently named retired Gen. Joseph Ralston as "anti-PKK coordinator," to work on a plan for disarming the group. Last weekend the guerrillas proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire. No one was impressed. At least four previous ceasefires have failed, and last week Turkey issued a pre-emptive dismissal of any PKK peace offer. "The PKK usually hibernate over the winter," says one Turkish diplomat. "When spring comes, they are up to their usual business again." The Blacksnake shows no sign of quitting the fight. "If the Turkish Army comes to Iraq, they will lose the battle," he promises. "They have lost 100 times already." Across the border, Turkey's troops are itching to accept that challenge.

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