It is often said, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
However, when it comes to the United States and a group fighting Iran, this axiom definitely does not apply.
In the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, near the Iran - Iraq border, Iran is lobbing artillery shells into Iraqi territory with increasing, and troubling, regularity. Their claimed target? A Kurdish militant group called PJAK (the Free Life Party of Kurdistan). PJAK controls a broad swath of northern Iraq, beyond the reach of Baghdad and the the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq.
PJAK was founded officially in 2004 to fight persecution of Kurds in Iran. They launch attacks on Iranian military targets just across the border, and have operatives inside Iran, fomenting opposition to the regime in Tehran. They claim that the Iranian government persecutes and discriminates against Kurds, and most human rights advocates agree.
The penalty in Iran for being a member of PJAK is death; four PJAK operatives were publicly executed in May.
HDNet World Report correspondent Willem Marx spent a few days with PJAK militants in northern Iraq earlier this Summer. Constantly on the move, they hide in some of the most rugged terrain in the world.
So targeting PJAK is very difficult for Iran. Their shells rarely hit PJAK camps, but rather rain down on local villages suspected of sheltering the group. Marx visited refugee camps where thousands of local Kurds have been driven from their homes, into makeshift tent cities which have no running water, medical care, or basic sanitation. The Kurdish regional government is unable, or unwilling, to do much to help them.
One wonders, then, why the United States isn't doing anything to help these Iraqi citizens, and even PJAK, which, after all, is fighting the hated Iranian regime.
Instead, early last year, just 12 days into the Obama administration, the U.S. designated PJAK a terrorist group.
PJAK militants said that they had previously met with U.S. officials, hoping to garner support for their efforts to de-stabilize American arch-enemy Iran. Those discussions did not yield fruit, but at least one PJAK leader Marx interviewed was taken aback when the terrorist designation came down. They suspect this was a sop to Iran by the new administration; more likely it was a sop to Turkey.
You see, PJAK is affiliated with the PKK (the Kurdish Worker's Party), which has waged a bloody 20-plus year insurgency against Turkey. Their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been in a Turkish prison since 1999, but their struggle against Turkey, and to a lesser extent Syria and Iran, continues. Many governments, including ours, have decided that there is no practical difference between PKK and PJAK. When World Report visited the militant camps, it was clear that PJAK is its own entity, but we did observe frequent communications between PJAK and PKK.
Now caught between the militant groups, Iran, and Turkey, (which also has apparently been bombing targets inside Iraq) Iraqi Kurds, mostly subsistence farmers, are not being protected by anyone, and they are suffering.
Also troubling: the United States helps Turkey with intelligence on Kurdish militant groups. Turkey also shares intelligence with Iran, raising the possibility that U.S. intelligence is actually aiding the Iranian military. There are now reports, too, that Iran is actually establishing military outposts inside Iraq.
As the United States continues its draw-down in Iraq, these are issues that need to be watched closely.
Here is a clip from Willem Marx's report from Northern Iraq / Iraqi Kurdistan, which airs Tuesday night on HDNet -- 9pm eastern and again at 12am eastern.