Friday, September 02, 2011

Turkish government still caught by surprise

Yesim Comert and Ivan Watson (CNN -- link has text and video) reported yesterday afternoon on Kurds protesting in Istanbul. Riot police were sent in, stones and "petrol bombs" were hurled, tear gas was utilized. The reporters note, "The protest in Istanbul Thursday began fairly peacefully. Women in traditional Kurdish costumes led a column of thousands of people, many of them waving BDP flags and carrying banners that said 'peace now immediately' and 'long live the brotherhood of people'." The protests come as these Kurds in Turkey feel the government that has long oppressed them is not following up on the promises of equality and dignity that were made in the last few years. The protests also come as Turkey is in the midst of bombing Kurds in northern Iraq.

Throughout the Iraq War, Turkey has bombed northern Iraq. Starting in 2007, they had approval from Nouri al-Maliki and the US government to conduct the bombings and they also were provided with 'intelligence' by the US military including imagery via US drones flown over the region. As the Turkish press has made clear in the last two weeks, the US continues to provide 'intelligence.' Turkey insists that they are defending themselves from the PKK -- a group of Kurdish people who advocate for and fight for a Kurdish land.

The PKK is one of many Kurdish groups which supports and fights for a Kurdish homeland. Aaron Hess (International Socialist Review) described them in 2008, "The PKK emerged in 1984 as a major force in response to Turkey's oppression of its Kurdish population. Since the late 1970s, Turkey has waged a relentless war of attrition that has killed tens of thousands of Kurds and driven millions from their homes. The Kurds are the world's largest stateless population -- whose main population concentration straddles Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria -- and have been the victims of imperialist wars and manipulation since the colonial period. While Turkey has granted limited rights to the Kurds in recent years in order to accommodate the European Union, which it seeks to join, even these are now at risk." The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq has been a concern to Turkey because they fear that if it ever moves from semi-autonomous to fully independent -- such as if Iraq was to break up into three regions -- then that would encourage the Kurdish population in Turkey. For that reason, Turkey is overly interested in all things Iraq. So much so that they signed an agreement with the US government in 2007 to share intelligence which the Turkish military has been using when launching bomb raids. However, this has not prevented the loss of civilian life in northern Iraq. Back to Aaron Hess, he noted, "The Turkish establishment sees growing Kurdish power in Iraq as one step down the road to a mass separatist movement of Kurds within Turkey itself, fighting to unify a greater Kurdistan. In late October 2007, Turkey's daily newspaper Hurriyet accused the prime minister of the KRG, Massoud Barzani, of turning the 'Kurdish dream' into a 'Turkish nightmare'."

Nouri's been very good about keeping the press out of the PKK camps. The Times of London, which is no longer in Iraq, repeatedly went to the area to report on what was taking place there and visited the rebel camps. Many other outlets just followed Nouri's dictate. Those who did report from the camps were able to demonstrate that (a) this wasn't taking place in hiding and (b) the mountains had other inhabitants as well.

Nouri's turning those mountains in northern Iraq into a no-press zone was very effective in covering up the toil the bombings were taking on civilians in the region.

This go round, what's really different is that the press paid attention to the fact that farmers and shepherds were being displaced, turned into refugees as they were forced to flee their villages due to the bombings. What's really different is that the deaths of civilians are finally getting attention. And when Turkey issues their ridiculous 'we didn't kill those civilians, that bomb must have been dropped by someone else' claim (see "Mars Attacks Iraq"), it only ensures that the bombings receive even more attention.

As long as Turkey could assert that they were just bombing rebels and it was in response to what rebels had done (and as long as everyone agreed to play stupid and pretend that the PKK sprung from the head of Zeus yesterday and that the Turkish government's actions didn't in fact create the PKK), everyone could just focus on how many bombs dropped and the claims by the Turkish military of killed X number of rebels and the holler back from the PKK of 'no, you didn't.'

The Turkish government seems genuinely baffled that something they've been doing repeatedly for years now is all the suddent a hot issue. At the start of this week, New Sabah did an article on some of the Turkish news coverage of the bombings and noted the Turkish government's stated position that the PKK were terrorists and that Iraq must "clean your land of these terrorists or we will do it for you."

That bully talk used to go over well but now as the bombings create refugees -- forcing hundreds of families to flee -- and as the dead includes not only civilians but small children, the bully talk really isn't being applauded by those who once cheered Turkey on.

And it also doesn't help Turkey's case that northern Iraq is also being bombed by the Iranian military who are also targeting Kurdish rebels. So you've got two countries terrorizing the people of Iraq and destroying the land with these bombs -- as in turning into pockmarked fields -- and probably creating long term health issues because these bombs are probably going to effect the environment. Even without Iran, the bully position that Turkey's government has taken would probably have gotten old by now on its own and people's patience would have worn thin as well. But Turkey truly seemed to believe that they could continue bombing year after year and the international community would never object.

Those days, as the Turkish government is learning, are over. Human Rights Watch issued the following today:

(Beirut) – Iran and Turkey’s cross-border attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan have killed at least 10 civilians and displaced hundreds since mid-July 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. Some of the attacks may have been carried out without sufficient attempts to ensure minimal impact on civilians, Human Rights Watch said.

Iraqi Kurdistan: Cross-Border Attacks Should Spare Iraqi Civilians | Human Rights Watch

Both Iran and Turkey say that their military operations, including artillery and aerial bombardments, are aimed at armed groups operating out of Iraqi Kurdistan along the northern and eastern borders. When Human Rights Watch visited those areas in August, Iraqi residents and officials said that many of the targeted areas are purely civilian and are not being used by the armed groups.

Evidence suggests that the regular Iranian bombardments may be an attempt to force Iraqi civilians out of some areas near the Iranian border.

“Year after year, civilians in northern Iraq have suffered from these cross-border attacks, but the situation right now is dire,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iran and Turkey should do all they can to protect civilians and their property from harm, no matter what the reason for their attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

Iran started its cross-border attacks in northern Iraq in mid-July, claiming to be targeting an armed group associated with the Iranian Kurdish Party for Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) operating in the mountainous border region. Beginning on August 18, Turkey carried out attacks across its border with Iraq, targeting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed group affiliated with PJAK that is fighting its own decades-long conflict with Turkey.

Shelling by Iran
Since mid-July, Iran’s operations against PJAK inside or near villages close to the Iranian border have led to the displacement of hundreds of families, caused the deaths of at least three villagers, and wounded an unknown number of people, according to international humanitarian aid organizations, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials, and media reports. Farmers from the border regions told Human Rights Watch in early August that the shelling had damaged their homes and that they saw Iranian soldiers cross the border into Iraq and kill farmers’ livestock. The attacks on civilians and their property that they described were similar to attacks documented by Human Rights Watch in June 2010.

Human Rights Watch visited the Choman and Qalat Diza districts and Qasre, Sangasar, and Zharawa subdistricts between July 26 and August 6 and interviewed more than a dozen displaced villagers as well as others in villages still being shelled. All villagers interviewed said that Kurdish armed groups had never been in their areas and that there were no other military targets in the vicinity at any point before or during the shelling. The affected areas are in the Qandil Mountains, along the eastern borders of Erbil and Sulaimaniyaprovinces, in the region administered by the KRG.

In the crowded Gojar tent camp in Sulaimaniya province, Fatima Mahmoud, 70, told Human Rights Watch she fled there with 11 family members in late July, after two Iranian shells struck her house in the village of Sune, 30 kilometers west of Qalat Diza. She said the village mosque and school were also damaged by shelling.

“It has been more than six years that Iran has been shelling our area, but this year, it was unbelievable,” she said. “I don’t know why Iran is shelling our village – we have never seen any PJAK members at all. I have never seen any [PJAK] members in our village.”

Attacks by Turkey
On August 18, Turkey began a bombing and artillery campaign against the PKK, which it blamed for earlier fatal attacks in Turkey. On August 21, according to Iraqi officials, Turkish warplanes bombed a vehicle carrying civilians. The attack killed seven members of the same extended family according to relatives of those killed, local officials, and media workers. Turkey denied its planes were responsible.

The family group, which included four children, was driving on a highly travelled main roadway in a white 2011 Nissan pickup truck from the village of Bole to Rania to visit relatives. Shamal Hassan told Human Rights Watch on August 29 that the attack instantly killed his wife, Rezan, and his daughters, Solin, two months old, and Sonya, 18 months old. The attack also killed his wife’s parents and two other children.

An emotional Hassan told Human Rights Watch, “The attack was so destructive that we couldn’t recognize their bodies. I want the international community to hold Turkey accountable. They ruined my life.”

Media photos released by multiple Iraqi Kurdish news organizations of the scene corresponded with Hassan’s description, and showed charred and disembodied children and adults splayed on the ground near the remnants of a destroyed vehicle. Human Rights Watch could not independently verify the authenticity of the photographs. There has been no evidence of any military target in the vicinity.

While the Turkish military said that it has killed more than 145 suspected PKK militants with artillery fire and airstrikes in northern Iraq since August 17, it has denied that its warplanes killed the family, saying only that news footage of the destroyed vehicle was not consistent with damage caused by Turkish aerial bombardment. However, Turkish officials have stated that Turkish warplanes were bombing multiple military targets, such as anti-aircraft guns and ammunitions caches, in the area at the time.

Iraqi political and military officials have repeatedly blamed Turkish warplanes for the attack. An August 28 statement from the KRG stated that “[KRG] President Barzani strongly condemned Turkish military attacks,” which it said were responsible for the seven deaths.

Civilian Displacement

Abdulwahid Gwani, mayor of the Choman district, which has been particularly hard-hit by Iranian shelling, told Human Rights Watch that the attacks by Iran and Turkey had cumulatively killed 9 civilians and displaced 325 families from Choman and 500 families in the Sidakan area.

“They [Iran and Turkey] don’t differentiate between civilians and armed groups, and the bombardments are more intense compared with last year,” Gwani said. “We notice that the Turkish bombardments are more random this year – they used to target specific locations in previous years but now it is kind of arbitrary.”

Earlier in August, Gwani and several displaced villagers told Human Rights Watch, the attacks forced hundreds of poor farmers to leave their crops unattended, destroying much of this year’s harvest. A number of farmers told Human Rights Watch that because there has been shelling each year during the short planting and harvesting season, they believed it showed an intentional effort to drive civilians from the area by harming their livelihood.

As in past years, aid organizations and local municipalities have struggled to meet the displaced families’ basic needs. The Kurdistan government does not keep an official registry of displaced villagers.

The representative of an international humanitarian aid organization working in the affected areas told Human Rights Watch on August 30 that the attacks have led to the displacement of 450 families, but that this number includes only families who have resettled in tent camps, and not those still moving around, staying with their families, or elsewhere. A delegation of Iraqi civil society organizations from Baghdad visited the areas on August 3 and reported the displacement of “up to 750 families from the areas of Choman, Sidi Khan and Haji Omran.”

The International Organization for Migration told Human Rights Watch on August 26 that it has so far distributed aid to approximately 295 families in tent camps – 275 families in Sulaimaniya and 20 in Erbil – but that another roughly 300 families from Erbil have been displaced and may require future aid.

Government Reactions

In August, the Iraqi government summoned both Iran’s and Turkey’s ambassadors in Baghdad because of concern about the operations, and both the Iraqi and KRG parliaments have strongly condemned the attacks.

On July 27, an Iraqi parliamentary official who declined to be named told Human Rights Watch that, during a meeting with a high-level Iranian diplomat that day, the diplomat stressed the “importance to Iran” of creating a buffer zone along the Iranian border “with no residents.” The official said that the diplomat also suggested deploying the Iraqi army to the area, instead of the Kurdistan regional forces who now patrol the border, because the Iraqis are not “as close” to the Kurdish residents.

Officials of both the KRG and the central government in Baghdad have told Human Rights Watch in recent weeks that Iran and Turkey have been defiant and dismissive in their private responses. Publicly, both countries contend that they have a right to attack the armed groups inside northern Iraq and both countries deny targeting civilians.

At an August 21 news conference in Turkey, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said that the militaryoperations “will continue without hesitation when necessary.” The governor of Iran’s West Azarbaijan Province, Vahid Jalalzadeh, told Iranian state television on August 6 that, “The operation against the group [PJAK] will continue until all members are killed,” but called reports of Iranian soldiers crossing into Iraq “rumors.”

The PKK and PJAK both openly admit to multiple guerrilla attacks against Turkish or Iranian soldiers in a self-proclaimed struggle for ethnic equality for Kurds in those countries. Both are considered terrorist organizations by the United States and European Union.

“The evidence suggests that Turkey and Iran are not doing what they need to do to make sure their attacks have a minimum impact on civilians, and in the case of Iran, it is at least quite possibly deliberately targeting civilians,” Stork said. “Regardless of their reasons for carrying out attacks, they need to respect international humanitarian law.”

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There are many changes that the latest wave of bombings didn't anticipate. Sazan M. Mandalawi (niqash) reports:

Just like their neighbours in other countries, young Kurdish people in Iraq are using the Internet and social media to call for political action. A recent protest in Erbil against Turkish bombing in the area saw protests swiftly organised: NIQASH was there from the beginning.
Shko Nawroly knows only too well why he is taking part in a protest against Turkish military ingressions into Iraq. "I was born in Iran because my parents were Peshmergas [Kurdish freedom fighters] and they had to run away from Saddam’s bombing,” explained Nawroly, referring to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s persecution of the Kurdish people in Iraq’s north.
“So I know how it feels when you have to flee to survive bombing and air attacks. And I know how it feels when your family is massacred. And this is why I decided to take part in organizing the protests against the bombing raids carried out by the Turkish warplanes on Kurdish soil,” the 23-year-old said passionately. “And as a human being it's a moral responsibility."
But unlike their parents and grandparents who fought on the mountains, today’s Kurdish youth are using education, technology, the Internet and social networks as well as peaceful rallies to prevent history repeating itself.

Staying with the Kurdish region, we'll note this from Wladimir van Wilgenburg's "Leaked US Cable: Kurdistan 'Model' For Minority Rights" (Rudaw):

A WikiLeaks cable from the US Regional Reconstruction Team (RRT) in October 2008 shows that the US saw the Kurdistan Region as “the region that has best protected Iraqi minority communities since 2003.”

In the cable, the RRT calls the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) policies a “model” for protecting Christians in Iraq. US officials interviewed Chaldean and Assyrian leaders, Kurdistan Regional Government authorities, long-time Christian residents of the KRG and Iraqis who had sought refuge in the Kurdish north.
“The Kurdish model provides lessons in how to craft communitarian rights that might be applicable to other regions of Iraq,” the cable read.
The cable added, “Christians do not feel that they suffer discrimination as a result of religious and ethnic identification and believe that Kurdish leaders value their presence.”

While a number of Iraqi Christians have expressed publicly that they feel safe in the KRG and while it is a region that many have fled to, it's also true that there are Iraqi Christians in that region who have publicly expressed other opinions. For example, any time an Iraqi church is bombed, you can usually count on some of the coverage to quote at least one Iraqi Christian who will share his or her belief that these criminal acts are being carried out by the Kurds. The KRG usually provides security via the pesh merga -- security to the churches and surrounding area. They also tend to get active immediately after an assault. The president and prime minister of the KRG usually quickly issue statements calling out attacks on Iraqi Christians. That is not the case in Baghdad where Nouri denounces "terrorists" every time there's a major bombing . . . unless it's targeting Iraqi Christians. Since they're generally attacked by thugs who support Nouri, that may explain his frequent silence. The US government really didn't do a lot for Iraqi Christians so I really think they stepped beyond their limited information zone when they chose to speak for them. And to be clear, I'm not questioning Wladimir van Wilgenburg's reporting. I'm questioning the US author of the State Dept cable and including the alternate view publicly expressed by some Iraqi Christians because (a) it is out there and (b) there will be e-mails if it's not included. (And it should be included. It's a view that repeats. How large or small it is, I have no idea. And doubt anyone does. Iraqi Christians are in a dependent relationship with the KRG. Those speaking publicly about their belief that Kurds are behind the attacks may be a stray strand, or they may represent what many think but are too scared to say. I have no idea.)

We'll close with this from Charles Lewis' "Nations Sanitize Libya Lingo For The War Weary" (Information Clearing House):

September 01, 2011 "National Post" -- On March 19, a coalition of nations allied with rebel fighters in Libya to help drive Muammar Gaddafi from power. NATO forces, including Britain, France, Canada and the United States began with sorties, a naval blockade and the firing of deadly Tomahawk cruise missiles.
On that day, all became participants in a bloody fight, putting their military forces at risk and adding to the carnage already taking place on the ground.
Yet, with rare exception, their leaders did everything possible to avoid the word that made it clear what they had got themselves and their citizens into — a war.
They have reached for every euphemism possible — “military action,” “use of force,” “mission,” “operation,” “conflict,” “intervention” and “responsibility to protect” have all acted as stand-ins for “war.”
Even the use of “no-fly zone” sounded benign enough, with its implications of clearing the skies in the manner of air traffic controllers. But as Robert Gates, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense, said early in March, “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences.”

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