Foreign troops are once again attacking Kurds in northern Iraq, but this time there's no likelihood of Western intervention-unless it's to help the attackers. The roads built by U.S. military engineers to carry supplies to starving refugees are now carrying Turkish tanks into the same mountain redoubts between Cucurka and Zakho. The planes taking off from bases Americans once used are carrying bombs, not food packets-and dropping their loads over Kurdish-held border villages.
Why are the Kurds the target? Turkish Kurdish separatists have been battling for an independent state in southeastern Turkey since 1984 (map). That's why the Turkish government is attacking them. But the Iraqi Kurds are now battling the Turkish Kurds, too. The Turkish separatists' organization, the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), was long given sanctuary in Iraqi Kurdistan by Kurdish guerrillas, the Peshmerga, fellows in arms. The PKK used those northern Iraqi bases to pursue its fight against Turkey-a war that has claimed 5,100 lives since 1984, 2,000 of them in the last year. But last month the Kurdish regional parliament bowed to Turkish demands and voted to expel the PKK from Iraqi Kurdistan. "PKK violence and terrorism endanger our whole cause," says Khoshar Zebari of the Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party. "But this is not to justify why we are fighting against our brothers."
Like any battle between brothers, this one has been particularly bloody. Kurdish leaders say they have no idea of casualty totals, but local commanders admitted to 100 Peshmerga dead in just two of the major battles, and they claim many hundreds of PKK dead. Wintry weather has already begun in the high mountains where Iran, Turkey and Iraq meet at the Hakurk Triangle, compounding supply problems for all sides. The Peshmerga insist they've been doing their own fighting, but foreign observers saw Turkish military advisers assisting the Iraqi Kurds in battle. And a Turkish blockade of possible PKK escape routes turned the tide strategically, especially in the mountains north of Zakho, where 40 Turkish armored vehicles crossed the Hezil River border. Last week, a few days after the Turks intervened, the surrounded PKK forces sued for a cease-fire.
The Iraqi Kurds say they made the decision to attack their fellow Kurds reluctantly, after the PKK ignored ultimatums. "They're causing us a hell of a problem," says Zebari. "We depend on the good will of Turkey to keep international protection. That's a fact of life," he says. "And [PKK attacks are] giving Turkey an excuse to come here and bomb us."
The fighting upstaged what the Iraqi Kurds had hoped would be a political and diplomatic showcase, a meeting of the Iraqi National Congress held deep in Kurdistan at Salahuddin. The congress, a new coalition of mostly anti-Saddam groups, was expected to approve a federated state in Iraq, and a joint presidency representing Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups. Instead it was delayed nearly a week by the fighting.
Even more worrisome was the potential harm to civilian Kurds. The PKK's forces in Turkey embargoed truck traffic to Kurdistan and threatened to kill the families of any truckers who defied it. That choked off nearly all supplies, just when seeds and fertilizer are needed. to plant winter crops. Thousands of Kurds abandoned their homes again, moving into towns where supplies are stretched thin. "If the road isn't opened," said UNICEF's Bidab Nazar in Zakho, "it could be another humanitarian crisis." Donor nations have pledged more aid to get the Kurds through the winter but without another major U.S. airlift, or a lifting of the PKK embargo, help can't arrive.
The Turkish Kurds remain defiant despite their reverses-and the costs. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan said Turkish involvement would only free his forces to attack farther north in Turkey. The PKK is already at it, blowing up a bridge under a passenger train near Lake Van last week, killing at least three and injuring 47, many of them soldiers. The Turks vowed their troops would be finished and home before the snows set in. But when brother faces brother, fights rarely end soon.