Facing The Islamic State Threat, Kurdish Fighters Unite

Facing The Islamic State Threat, Kurdish Fighters Unite

1:17pm Oct 28, 2014
Three female members of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and an Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter stand near the front line in Makhmur, in northern Iraq, on Aug. 9. The Turkish and Iraqi Kurds have been fighting together against the Islamic State.
Three female members of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and an Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter stand near the front line in Makhmur, in northern Iraq, on Aug. 9. The Turkish and Iraqi Kurds have been fighting together against the Islamic State.
Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images
  • Three female members of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and an Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter stand near the front line in Makhmur, in northern Iraq, on Aug. 9. The Turkish and Iraqi Kurds have been fighting together against the Islamic State.

    Three female members of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and an Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter stand near the front line in Makhmur, in northern Iraq, on Aug. 9. The Turkish and Iraqi Kurds have been fighting together against the Islamic State.

    Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images

  • Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters hold a position on the front line in the Gwer district, 25 miles south of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, on Sept. 15. Aided by U.S. airstrikes, the Kurds have been able to retake some positions from the Islamic

    Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters hold a position on the front line in the Gwer district, 25 miles south of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, on Sept. 15. Aided by U.S. airstrikes, the Kurds have been able to retake some positions from the Islamic

    JM Lopez / AFP/Getty Images

  • An Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter stands on a berm 25 miles south of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, on Oct. 5. Turkish Kurds have been joining the Iraqi Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State.

    An Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter stands on a berm 25 miles south of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, on Oct. 5. Turkish Kurds have been joining the Iraqi Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State.

    Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images

At a checkpoint outside the northern Iraq town of Makhmur, I saw something I'd never seen before in Iraq.

Two men were checking cars. One was young and wearing a sand-colored uniform of the official Iraqi Kurdish forces, called the peshmerga. The other was older, grizzled and dressed in an olive-green, traditional Kurdish overall, and he's with Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

"We're happy to be working together," said the older man, Hajji Hussein Abdulrahman.

This is a new development. Until recently, Iraqi Kurdish authorities and the peshmerga didn't deal much with the PKK. There's a long rivalry between the two. Plus, Turkey and the U.S. consider the PKK to be terrorists based on their attacks against civilian targets in Turkey for many years.

But some of those attitudes began to change when the self-described Islamic State, also known as ISIS, charged into northern Iraq and overran large chunks of territory, including this town in June.

The peshmerga were struggling to fight back. But thousands of PKK supporters, who had been kicked out of Turkey, were living in a nearby refugee camp. They picked up their old rifles and joined the fray.

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters hold a position on the front line in the Gwer district, 25 miles south of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, on Sept. 15. Aided by U.S. airstrikes, the Kurds have been able to retake some positions from the Islamic State.

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters hold a position on the front line in the Gwer district, 25 miles south of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, on Sept. 15. Aided by U.S. airstrikes, the Kurds have been able to retake some positions from the Islamic State.

JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

"We evacuated all the civilians, the women and kids and elderly people from the camp," said Polat Mohammad Khalil, a civilian official at the camp. "And then we reorganized ourselves as guerrillas to confront ISIS."

With the help of U.S. airstrikes, the combined Kurdish forces pushed out the Islamic State extremists.

"It was the first time for us to coordinate with the peshmerga — to be in one place, one position," Khalil said. "So we have to thank ISIS because they unified us."

The president of Iraq's semi-autonomus Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, has long had bad relations with the PKK. But he came to thank them. And many other people in the town of Makhmur also seem grateful.

Aram Karim, who was making sandwiches in a shop, said the PKK help was a surprise. The Kurdish camp has been here since the 1990s, but the Turkish Kurds never did any fighting.

"They were always good neighbors," he said, "but I like them much more now."

An Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter stands on a berm 25 miles south of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, on Oct. 5. Turkish Kurds have been joining the Iraqi Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State.

An Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter stands on a berm 25 miles south of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, on Oct. 5. Turkish Kurds have been joining the Iraqi Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State.

Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

This isn't the only place were Kurdish fighters have been active. On northern Iraq's Mount Sinjar in August, the PKK helped tens of thousands of minority Yazidis escape the advancing Islamic State.

And the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, has been battling to keep the Islamic State out of the town of Kobani.

In the main Iraqi Kurdish city, Irbil, Shiman Eminoglu is a politician from the BDP party, which leans strongly toward the PKK. She says the PKK is fighting for everyone's benefit, and that this should be recognized by the United States.

"I feel there is a very big injustice against the PKK because they put them on a terror list and they classified them as a terror organization," Eminoglu said. "I think the whole international community should change its opinion about the PKK."

Many think that's unlikely. Turkey blames the PKK for the deaths of three soldiers just this week and has been targeting them with airstrikes.

"The United States will not, on the PKK, change policy," says Turkey expert Henri Barkey of Lehigh University. "It doesn't talk to the PKK, it considers it a terrorist organization, it follows the Turkish line."

But when it comes to the PKK's Syrian sister group, the YPG, Barkey thinks there has been a shift. The Syrian Kurdish group is not on the U.S. terror list, and last week, the U.S. airdropped weapons to them.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Up in the mountains of northern Iraq, a group of Kurdish guerrilla fighters has been in hiding for years. The PKK, as the Kurdistan Workers' Party is known, is considered a terror group by the U.S. And they have been treated with suspicion even by fellow Kurds. NPR's Alice Fordham takes us to one little Kurdish town where that's changing.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: At a checkpoint outside the northern Iraqi town of Makhmur is something I've never seen before.

Two men check cars. One's young and wearing a sand-colored uniform of the official forces called Peshmerga. The other's older, grizzled and dressed in an olive-green traditional Kurdish overall, and he's with the PKK.

HAJJI HUSSEIN ABDULRAHMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: We're happy to be working together, says the older man named Hajji Hussein Abdulrahman. It's a new thing. Until recently, Peshmerga and the Iraqi Kurdish authorities didn't deal with the PKK much. There's a long rivalry between the two. Plus Turkey and the U.S. consider them terrorists who hit civilian Turkish targets in the 1990s. But some of those attitudes began to change when the so-called Islamic State charged into northern Iraq and took turf including this town.

ABDULRAHMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Abdulrahman tells me how militants from the Islamic State blasted in in early June. The Peshmerga was struggling to fight back. But there's a refugee camp here where thousands of PKK supporters kicked out of Turkey live, and they picked up their old rifles.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

FORDHAM: At that PKK camp, I meet a civilian official, Polat Mohammad Khalil.

POLAT MOHAMMAD KHALIL: (Through translator) We evacuated all the civilians - the women and kids and elderly people - from the camps, and then we reorganized ourselves as guerrillas to confront ISIS.

FORDHAM: They joined forces with the Peshmerga and began to fight back. With the help of U.S. airstrikes, they pushed the militants out.

KHALIL: (Through translator) Yes, it was the first time for us to coordinate with the Peshmerga to be in one place, one position. So we have to thank ISIS because they unified us.

FORDHAM: And in town, people seem grateful. Aram Karim chats while he makes me a sandwich.

ARAM KARIM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says the PKK help was a surprise. The camp's been here since the '90s, but they never did any fighting. They were always good neighbors, he says, but I like them much more now. And it's not just here; on Mount Sinjar in August, the PKK helped tens of thousands of minority Yazidis escape the Islamic State. And their close sister group in Syria, the YPG, have been keeping the militants out of the town of Kobani. Still...

HENRI BARKEY: The United States will not on the PKK change policy. It doesn't talk to the PKK. It considers it as a terrorist organization. It follows a Turkish line.

FORDHAM: Turkey expert Henri Barkey of Lehigh University there. Many think it's unlikely the international community will change their view of the PKK soon. Turkey blames them for the deaths of three soldiers just this week and targets them with airstrikes. But on the PKK's Syrian sister group, the YPG, Barkey thinks there has been a shift. They're not on the U.S. terror list, and last week the U.S. air dropped them weapons. Alice Fordham, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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