Tehran goes gunning for the Kurds: Hugh Pope in Boulla, Iraq, witnesses attempts by Iran to deal with a people whom it decries as revolutionaries and plotters of 'world arrogance'

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The Independent Online
IN AN idyllic mountain valley in Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the most ancient fault-lines in the Middle East is opening up again. The Kurds, whose native land straddles parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, are in trouble again. In the village of Boulla, they are being attacked not by the Baghdad authorities, but by the Iranians. There have been skirmishes across the Iran-Iraq border as Iranian forces hammer the Kurdish dissidents. Every day or two, Iranian heavy-artillery shells shatter the peace of the valley.

For the past three months, Iranian forces have attacked villages and camps along the Iraqi border, trying to get the range of Iranian Kurdish rebels, whose modest main base, radio station and newspaper office are at Boulla, which consists of 50 small mud-roofed houses lost amid an oasis of walnut trees just inside the territory controlled since 1991 by the increasingly self-sufficient Kurdish rebels of Iraq.

'These attacks are not just for us,' said Selami Azizi, a former judge and political-bureau member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iran (KDPI). 'Iran is worried. What is happening here has a direct effect on Iranian Kurdistan. They want to hit us and want to get rid of the government in Arbil (capital of Iraqi Kurdistan).'

Iranian warplanes even crossed into Iraqi airspace to attack the Boulla base in March, killing four people. The crew of the sole visible anti-aircraft gun said they were caught off-guard, believing they were protected by allied planes that patrol the valley as part of an air exclusion zone above Iraq's 36th parallel.

Iran has also throttled the main trade route between Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan, having already bought cheaply the best equipment pillaged by Iraqi Kurdish guerrilla factions during their 1991 uprising. Only the traditional Kurdish art of smuggling still makes bottles of Iranian cola available on the streets of Iraqi Kurdish towns.

Not that Iran has neglected other means to do down the group it views as counter-revolutionaries and plotters of 'world arrogance'. Tehran's agents shot their two last leaders: Sadeq Sherefkandi in a Berlin cafe last year, and the legendary Abdurah man Ghassemlu in Vienna in 1988. The heir to this dangerous post is Mustapha Hijri, a Persian-literature graduate of Tehran university in his mid-forties. 'They invited Ghassemlu for talks in Vienna. At the end of the session the man from Tehran reached into his diplomatic case, pulled out a gun, shot Ghassemlu dead and escaped. Austria never did anything about it,' Mr Azizi said. He wiped his brow with the end of his cummerbund. He was ill with a bad fever, which he could only treat with aspirin: French doctors left the camp hospital after it was hit by a bomb.

Being a Kurdish guerrilla is not easy at the best of times, but the struggle of the Iranian Kurds is among the least known of those fighting for at least local self-determination for the Middle East's 20 million Kurds.

Yet the KDPI is one of the oldest groups, dating back 45 years to the brief flowering of the Kurdish republic of Mahabad. Aiming for autonomy and cultural rights rather than an independent Kurdish state, it has survived suppression by the Shah, the Islamic Republic and a split in its own ranks five years back.

Mr Azizi said that in the past 10 years they had lost 4,000 guerrillas and that 50,000 civilians had been killed. Their only success has been the introduction of some state-run broadcasts in Kurdish. Teaching and official use of Kurdish is still banned.

'They are much better equipped; they have all the advantages of a state. But they have no political base. Their only base is a fort on the top of each hilltop,' Mr Azizi said in the political bureau's small meeting-room, overlooked by maps of the world, a souvenir from a Socialist International congress in Peru and a clock running on Iranian time.

An Iranian Kurdish guerrilla recently back from a tour of duty said they were outmanned and outgunned, but were able to move freely the length and breadth of Iranian Kurdistan, fed and welcomed by local people. Like the other guerrillas, he claimed that the Tehran media deliberately ignored most of the clashes.

Tehran is facing the same problem as Ankara and Damascus in blocking the rise of Kurdish consciousness and the basing rights offered to rebel groups of all colours in 'liberated' Iraqi Kurdistan. Meetings in Ankara last November and in Tehran last March between the three states to block the emergence of an independent Kurdistan failed to agree on joint action.

Perhaps it should be no great surprise that there was mutual suspicion: Syria and Iran still harbour Turkish Kurdish guerrillas, Turkey and Syria look after Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas and the Iranian Kurds have a 'political relationship' with Iraq that allows them access to the outside world through Baghdad.

At a town base in Raniyeh, an hour's drive from Boulla by a steep rutted road flanked by hillsides strewn with mines, middle-aged Iranian Kurdish guerrilla officials emerged from the summer torpor and a flickering Iraqi Kurdish television replay of an antique Benny Hill show to complain that the West was slipping in its support for both them and human rights.

The shelling reminds them daily that Iran, like Turkey and Iraq, is far from tired of a military solution to its Kurdish problem.

Mr Azizi said that, whatever the West may think of the pragmatism of the Iranian President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: 'An akhund is still an akhund (a mullah is still a mullah) . . . their only differences are about methods of oppression.'

(Photograph omitted)