The following information and assessments are based upon the author’s first-hand observations from his March 2006 visit to Kurdish camps on Mount Qandil.
In recent months, Turkey has renewed its threats to enter Iraqi Kurdistan to attack the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Any Turkish attack would focus on the PKK’s main base, or series of camps, in the foothills of Mount Qandil (or Kandeel), a 3,500 meter mountain that straddles the Iranian border some 100 kilometers from the Turkish frontier. In August, Mount Qandil was the subject of Iranian artillery attacks as Tehran targeted camps belonging to both the PKK and its Iranian counterpart, the Party for Freedom and Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) (for an in-depth portrait of PJAK, see Terrorism Monitor, June 15). Any attempt by Turkey and Iran to attack the Kurds in northern Iraq will likely involve operations on this strategic mountain.
Mount Qandil is located on the Iranian border. The area controlled by the PKK is on the mountain’s western and southern side where a series of winding valleys fan out toward Lake Dukan. The PKK controls an approximately 50 square kilometer area that also contains around a dozen Kurdish villages. The mountain’s sprawling 3,500 meter high summit, a jumble of interlocking peaks and plateaus, is snow-covered for much of the year. The bulk of Mount Qandil itself is in Iranian territory. The southern slopes of Mount Qandil, within PKK-held territory, are largely occupied by PJAK. A four mile-wide sparsely wooded valley separates the PJAK camps from several small Iranian military bases sited on mountain-tops facing Qandil.
The main PKK camp is approached up a winding, well-maintained asphalt road that passes over steep valleys. There are at least two simple PKK checkpoints on this road before the road crosses two passes and reaches the PKK base camp. A mud track then leads up to the main PKK bases. PJAK’s camps are reached by a separate mud track. Cows and sheep grazing along the roads leading to both camps indicate that the area is not mined and the few barbed wire fences on the mountain are to stop livestock rather than troops. Where the road switchbacks up steep inclines, however, there are indications that the cliff-side is rigged with explosives so that rockfalls can be remotely triggered. Where the hillsides are steep the terrain is rocky, but in the valley there are fields and fruit trees. Further up the mountain there are deciduous forests.
Facilities, Weapons and Communications
Most PKK buildings on Qandil are traditional Kurdish mud and stone houses. Some larger buildings are built of pre-fabricated steel or concrete blocks. There is also a PKK cemetery with approximately 30 graves. The PKK has several petrol-powered generators; electricity consumption, however, is very low. Buildings and tents are often lit by oil-lamps and heated in winter by oil-stoves. There is one simple hospital at the PKK base camp, partially staffed by Kurds educated in Western Europe. The hospital, which is composed of two long, low huts made of concrete breeze blocks, offers only the most basic medical facilities.
Communication within the camp is by a mix of shortwave radio and Thuraya satellite phone, neither of which appears entirely reliable. As PJAK and the PKK are separated by the high mountain ridges, radio communication between the two is patchy. On parts of the mountain it is possible to receive a weak signal on Korek, the main Kurdish cell phone operator. The PKK also have internet access on several computers through satellite uplinks. Travel within the camp is mainly by foot. Donkeys and mules are also used to transport food and provisions up and down the mountain. The PKK also have some 4×4 jeeps that are mainly used for traveling outside the base. Food is brought in from the nearby town of Raniya.
The PKK’s weapons are mainly basic and are often of considerable vintage. The standard weapon is the AK-47 assault rifle. In the Qandil camps, there is little visible evidence of any more high-tech or modern equipment. PKK publicity photographs, however, show Soviet-era anti-aircraft guns, RPGs and heavy machine guns. PKK members are often un-armed in camp and it is unclear if there are enough AK-47s to go around. There was no obvious sign of high-end guerrilla equipment such as sniper rifles or night-vision goggles. There are some guard dogs kept at outlying PKK encampments on Mount Qandil.
History of the Camp
The precise history of Kurdish militant activity on Mount Qandil is unclear but the presence of old, traditional Kurdish villages within PKK territory suggests that Mount Qandil mostly escaped Saddam Hussein’s campaigns against the Kurds. In 1988, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) had their main guerrilla headquarters nearby which may have encompassed Qandil . Turkish Kurdish militants were active in Iraq from the mid-1980s, but the PKK first came to the region in substantial numbers in 1991. During the 1980s, the PKK were mainly funded by Syria and based in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. The PKK first moved to Qandil after PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan declared a cease-fire after his arrest in 1999 and then in a second wave when Syrian sponsorship of the PKK formally ended in 2000. Mount Qandil was from its inception a PKK retreat rather than part of an offensive strategy.
The PKK’s decision to settle in Qandil may have been inspired by the actions of the Kurdish Islamic groups Komala and Jund al-Islam, which by the mid-1990s were starting to coalesce around Halabja where—with Iranian help—they gradually established a shifting zone of control in a dozen villages. Like Mount Qandil, these areas were also mountainous, inaccessible and nestled tightly against the porous Iranian border. The presence of these Kurdish Islamist camps (eventually ruled by Ansar al-Islam) meant that a rigid ideological separation developed among non-Iraqi Kurds; the religious went to Halabja and the secular moved to Qandil .
In summer 2003, the U.S. Army surrounded Mount Qandil and established checkpoints on the roads leading to the mountain . The Coalition Provisional Authority refurbished small Saddam-era forts on some of the mountain’s approach roads that are now manned by small PUK peshmerga detachments. These men do not interfere with the operations of the PKK or PJAK and their main aim appears to be to prevent non-Kurds from reaching the camps.
Numbers of Fighters and the Role of the Camp
According to their own estimates, the number of PKK fighters in Qandil is around 3,000 . The Turkish government estimates that there are up to 5,000 PKK members in the whole of northern Iraq . The constant migration of people from Qandil makes an exact figure impossible and there is some overlap between PJAK and PKK fighters. Many of the camp’s long-term residents are Syrian Kurds who are unable to return to their homeland . The quality of PKK recruits on Qandil compares unfavorably to those of PJAK, the PKK’s more urbanized Iranian equivalent. While PJAK’s members are young, motivated and highly educated, PKK members on Mount Qandil are largely older, less educated and often from very rural backgrounds.
The PKK operates Mount Qandil more as a mini-state rather than a simple “training camp.” While weapons training does take place and forms an important part of training for new recruits, the PKK puts great emphasis on ideological training . Education in Kurdish history, culture and politics aims to create dedication to the Kurdish cause alongside loyalty to Abdullah Ocalan. Yet at the same time, many PKK members are middle-aged and have been in the camp since 1999, or even earlier. The camp is purposely situated far from the frontlines and its primary role today is to act as a safe haven for Kurds from Turkey and further afield. The sense of lethargy that pervades the camp partly comes from the fact that the PKK’s leader is still Abdullah Ocalan who, despite being in prison, aims to micro-manage the movement. “The PKK are lost; they are on their mountain and they don’t have a clue about where their movement is going,” said Peshwaz Faizulla, editor of Hawlati, the largest independent newspaper in Iraqi Kurdistan.
* Part Two of this article will discuss the internal politics of the Kurds on Mount Qandil, in addition to the future of the camps.
1. Human Rights Watch, “The Anfal Campaign against the Kurds,” (New York, 1993), http://hrw.org/reports/1993/iraqanfal/ANFAL3.htm.
2. Author interviews with members of Komala and the Islamic Union of Kurdistan, March 2006.
3. Author interview with Akif Zagros, member of PJAK leadership council, PJAK Camp, Mount Qandil, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 21.
4. Interviews with PKK members, March 20-22, 2006, Mount Qandil.
5. See for example: http://www.mfa.gov.tr/MFA/ForeignPolicy/MainIssues/Terrorism/PKK_KONGRA_GEL.htm
6. Interviews with PKK members, March 20-22, 2006, Mount Qandil.
7. Author interview with Assad Abdul Rahman Chaderchi, member of PKK leadership council, PKK base camp, Mount Qandil, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 22.
8. Author interviews, March 2006, Sulaimaniya.