Poking and prodding at border, Iran tests Iraqi resolve

ALI RASH, Iraq – This remote village high in the rugged mountains along the border with Iran has been deserted, its people having fled Iranian air and artillery bombardments with everything they could carry and whatever livestock that could be coaxed down the steep mountain trails.

Now the hundreds of Kurds who left Ali Rash and other mountain villages are living in sweltering refugee camp tents. They are at the centre of questions about whether Iraq is willing or able to defend its borders with Iran – which has repeatedly breached the frontier in recent months.

The attacks on Ali Rash, and at least a dozen other Kurdish villages, have continued for more than a month and have included a foray by Iranian tanks 1.5 kilometres into Iraqi territory. But they have elicited only a tepid protest from Iraq’s government, including the release of a statement pleading with neighbouring countries to honour its borders.

The Iranian government has said its bombing campaigns are necessary to weaken Kurdish guerrillas that strike in Iran and take refuge in Iraq. The only confirmed casualty has been a 14-year-old girl.

The incursions, though, come at a critical time for Iraq – amid the political stalemate over who should lead the next government more than three months after a divided electorate cast ballots, and less than three months before the American military is scheduled to withdraw its last combat soldier from the country.

U.S. forces continue to patrol portions of Iraq’s 1,460-kilometre frontier with Iran, but in the Qandil Mountain villages that have suffered the brunt of the Iranian offensive, there are no American, Iraqi or Kurdish soldiers – and the refugees say they are getting little help.

“We have been left on our own,” said Bahar Ibrahim, 27, a refugee from Ali Rash, who is eight months pregnant.

In the villages of Ali Rash and Sharkhan, craters from Iranian munitions dot the ground in pastures and around crude stone houses.

The hundreds of people who lived in the villages are now in refugee camps. Only a few stray horses remain. Even the honeybees have been taken to safer places. On the hillsides, where villagers grew wheat, the ground is scorched black.

The shelling here continues a trend of Iranian border incursions during the past 13 months that have included a helicopter attack on Kurdish villages in northern Iraq last May, and the occupation by Iranian soldiers of part of the Fakka oil field in south-eastern Iraq for three days last December.

In May, Iranian troops engaged in a firefight with the pesh merga, the Kurdish security forces, along the frontier before capturing and briefly detaining a pesh merga soldier that Iranian forces said they had misidentified as a member of the guerrilla group, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, more commonly known by its abbreviation, PJAK.

The PJAK, which is seeking greater Kurdish self-determination in Iran and its sibling group, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which is fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, use remote out-posts in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region to carry out attacks, according to the Iranian and Turkish governments.

Turkey also bombs border areas in Iraq in pursuit of rebels. Recently, clashes were reported between Turkish troops and PKK fighters, which led to the deaths of four guerrillas and a Turkish soldier. Afterward, the Turkish military said it had dropped bombs in Iraq’s Kurdish region and its soldiers had crossed more than 1.5 kilometres into Iraq to pursue guerrillas. The Kurdish guerrilla groups have been listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government, though the PJAK has had contact with American officials as recently as four years ago.

The PJAK maintains that its attacks into Iran have been justified.

“We never kill civilians,” said Haval Kalhwr, a PJAK spokesman. “We are engaged in a defensive war which is internationally defined as legal.”

Officials in Iraq’s Kurdish region have criticized Baghdad for not doing more to convince the authorities in Iran to halt the attacks. The Kurdish regional officials here also deny that they harbour guerrillas.

“The bombardment has continued, which means that the Iraqi government has not taken a serious position on this matter,” said Twana Ahmad, a spokesman for Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government.

Iran has announced several times during the past six weeks that it has halted the bombing, only to resume a day or so later, according to residents of the village and Kurdish officials.

Kurdish refugees say that because the bombs have burned their wheat fields and killed livestock, even when the bombardment ends, it will be years before the villages will be economically secure again.

In the meantime, they get water from relief agencies and buy food from itinerant traders who charge twice the price found in markets.

Some have been living in tents for weeks, and health officials say unsanitary conditions in the camps may lead to the outbreak of disease.

Sabria Salih, 26, who has an 8-month-old child, said Ali Rash – the village she fled from more than four weeks ago – had come under heavy attack from Iranian forces.

“We have left almost everything behind,” she said. “We have only some blankets.”

She said the Iranian government was mistaken if it believed that the villagers were hiding guerrillas.

“No PJAK has been killed or injured in the attacks,” she said. “And no one has ever seen PJAK in our village.”

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