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Last Updated: Friday, 15 February 2008, 18:26 GMT
Civilians losers in Turkey-PKK conflict
By Crispin Thorold
BBC News, Khanaqa Valley, northern Iraq

Deep in the mountains, the Khanaqa Valley is one of the most idyllic places in northern Iraq. The jagged snow-covered peaks glisten in the sunlight.

Khanaqa Valley
Local residents deny the PKK operates in the Khanaqa Valley

Small villages hug the mountainsides and a gently flowing river runs through the valley floor. In normal times the peace is only broken by the crow of a cockerel or the gentle twittering of sparrows.

But 16 December 2007 was not a normal day for the valley's inhabitants.

Early in the morning, Turkish warplanes bombed several sites in the area, which is situated 100km (60 miles) from the Turkish border.

At the time, Turkish officials insisted the raids had only targeted the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hailed them as a "success".

'Ground shook'

But according to someone living in the valley, Turkish jets also bombed the village of Zargali.

Awat Qadir said she and her family had been asleep in their house there when the sky suddenly erupted at around 0200.

Qadir family
When they play outside and they hear the sound of the aeroplane, they come running in - one even ducks when he sees a bird swooping down
Awat Qadir

"It was a very bad night", says Mrs Qadir.

"All the glass of the windows fell out and our door was broken. All the families were frightened because of the noise of the aeroplanes and the bombs."

Locals said that the village was lit up by the bombardment and that the ground shook. The Qadirs ran to the mountainside and hid among the rocks.

Now nearly two months later the Qadirs are living in a relative's house in a village further down the valley, where they share a small room with two other families.

The children play outside, but never for long - their mother says that since the bombing they have been too scared.

"When they play outside and they hear the sound of the aeroplane, they come running in," she says. "One even ducks when he sees a bird swooping down."

Painful history

Listening in a corner of the room is the head, or mukhtar, of Zargali village.

Ismael Abdullah nervously fiddles with his prayer beads as he recalls the region's painful history.

We thought that when Saddam went, our suffering was finished
Ismael Abdullah
Head of Zargali village

During the Anfal (Spoils) campaign against the Kurds in 1988, in which at least 100,000 people were killed, government forces directed by the late Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, destroyed the houses there.

Now another enemy threatens their safety.

"We thought that when Saddam went, our suffering was finished," says Mr Abdullah.

"All Iraqis - especially the Kurds - were happy and relaxed. Now we see everyone is looking for an excuse to make problems for us, even though we are living on our own land and in our own country."

Official reluctance

Although Turkey says it targeted only the PKK, everyone we spoke to in the Khanaqa Valley denies that the Kurdish rebel group operates in this area. That claim was impossible for us to verify independently.

All our requests - at a regional, provincial and local level - to visit the scene of the bombings were rejected. The Kurdish administration and intelligence services cited our safety as the reason for refusing us access to Zargali.

Sure enough, when we visited the last checkpoint on the road to Zargali we were turned away, unlike the many local cars that were let through.

The official reluctance to allow journalists into the area reflects the sensitivity of the Turkish bombing of northern Iraq.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has a difficult history with the PKK - both of the main parties in the administration have fought them in the past, at times in league with the Turks.

But the PKK is also a group that says that it is fighting for the rights of the Kurds in Turkey.

'Shared responsibility'

After enduring decades of persecution, there is sympathy among Iraqi Kurds for a group that advocates greater freedoms for the Kurdish people in Turkey.

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga troops patrol the Iraq-Turkey border (archive)
Iraqi Kurdish troops have not intervened in the Turkish operations

"You know, we don't believe that military operations will bring any results", says Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of the foreign relations department at the KRG.

"We realise that this is a problem and we have a shared responsibility in order to address this issue. The KRG is ready to be involved in talks to address this issue."

The problem with that is that the Turkish government refuses to talk directly to the Kurds. Instead, it accuses them of providing a base for the PKK to launch raids into Turkey. The Turks, the EU and the US all classify the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

The Iraqi border police do undertake regular patrols in PKK strongholds, but it is not clear what they are doing to tackle the group.

Over recent months they have monitored Turkish incursions into Iraqi territory and violations of Iraqi airspace, but they have not intervened.

Enduring conflict

During a tour of the border police's facilities, a commander took us to a village that had been the scene of Turkish artillery shelling and heavy machine-gun fire.

Turkish helicopter flying near the Iraqi border (archive)
The PKK are not here, but still the Turkish attack
Border police commander

There he repeated a familiar message: "The PKK are not here, but still the Turkish attack."

He also let it slip to our translator that he had been told to look after us but also to ensure that we didn't go anywhere too "interesting".

Whatever is going on in the PKK strongholds the KRG appears determined that it is not publicised. In the meantime the attacks by the Turkish military continue. The most recent airstrikes were a week ago.

The Turkish prime minister has vowed that his country will continue its fight against the PKK "until we win", but in the mountains of northern Iraq victory for either side seems a distant prospect.

In this battle it is the civilians who are emerging as the main losers.

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