In recent months, fighters from the Iranian Kurdish group, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), have clashed several times with Iranian government forces. At the end of February, Iran launched a counter-offensive against the group in the northeast of Iran’s West Azerbaijan province, near the Turkish border. According to Iran’s state news agencies, this sparked fresh violence in which as many as 47 Kurdish rebels and 17 Iranian soldiers were killed between February 25 and March 1.
Although it is unclear what exactly sparked the Iranian offensive, once it was underway the fighting soon escalated. On February 24, an Iranian helicopter crashed near the town of Khoy, killing 13 soldiers, including several members of the elite Revolutionary Guards and Said Qahari, the head of the Iranian army’s 3rd Corps. PJAK quickly claimed to have shot down the helicopter using a shoulder-launched missile, killing 20 soldiers, including several senior officers, during an hour-long battle. Iran, however, blamed the crash on bad weather (al-Jazeera, February 24).
Three days later, on February 28, Brigadier-General Yahya Rahim Safavi, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, speaking at the funeral of the crash victims, promised that the military assault was open-ended and that the army had surrounded several Kurdish fighters. “The bandits and counter-revolutionaries should know that Iranian troops will deal with them strongly and will not stop the operation to uproot them,” he said. Safavi also said that three rebel “leaders” had been killed in other fighting further south in Seru, a suburb of the mainly Kurdish city of Orumiyeh, and said that a total of 30 rebels had been killed in the fighting (Mehr News Agency, February 28).
The following day, March 1, another senior Revolutionary Guards commander said 17 rebels and four Iranian soldiers died in separate clashes in West Azerbaijan province. “Seventeen rebels who entered Iran to carry out sabotage work have been killed,” Colonel Jalil Babazadeh told the IRNA news agency on March 1. He also said that the dead soldiers—all members of the Revolutionary Guards—included one commander, two lieutenants and a private. He did not give the exact date of these clashes. If Babazadeh’s fresh casualty count is in addition to Safavi’s earlier estimate of 30 rebels and 13 Iranian soldiers then, by official Iranian sources, the total death toll for the week’s fighting includes up to 47 rebels and 17 Iranian troops, including two commanders.
This latest fighting—apparently the heaviest in at least a year—comes after months of sporadic reports of PJAK activity in Iran. On September 28, 2006, for example, Iran said that two members of the PKK (which Iran regularly confuses with the closely affiliated PJAK) blew up a gas pipeline to Turkey near the town of Bazargan in West Azerbaijan province (Fars News Agency, September 31, 2006). The difficulty of obtaining information from Iran’s Kurdish regions makes it difficult to interpret these scattered reports—particularly as only the very largest events are reported. Despite the paucity of information, however, these reports may indicate that PJAK is experimenting with different strategies and increasing its capabilities, while simultaneously abiding by its policy of only fighting if attacked in order to protect its civil activists (Terrorism Monitor, June 15, 2006).
At the same time, however, the reports suggest that PJAK can now deploy fighters in larger groups than before and is equipping them with more potent weaponry. The group may also be aiming to copy some of the tactics of Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgents—in particular by targeting Iran’s oil industry and using rockets to attack helicopters. At the same time, Iran has clearly stepped up efforts to destroy PJAK, and it has had a measure of success, albeit at some cost to itself.