A low-slung concrete building off a steep mountain road marks the beginning of rebel territory in this remote corner of northern Iraq.
The fighters based here, Kurdish militants fighting Turkey, fly their own flag, and despite urgent international calls to curb them, they operate freely, receiving supplies in beat-up pickup trucks less than 10 miles from a government checkpoint.
“Our condition is good,” said one fighter, putting a heaping spoonful of sugar into his steaming tea. “How about yours?”
A giant face of the rebels’ leader – Abdullah Ocalan, now in a Turkish prison – has been painted on a nearby slope.
The rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is at the center of a crisis between Turkey and Iraq that began when the group’s fighters killed 12 Turkish soldiers last Sunday, prompting Turkey, a NATO member, to threaten an invasion.
In response, the United States put intense pressure on Iraq’s Kurdish leaders who control the northern area where the rebels hide, with a senior State Department official delivering a rare rebuke last week over their “lack of action” in curbing the PKK.
But even with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scheduled to visit Istanbul this coming week, Kurdish political leaders seemed in no hurry to act.
An all-out battle is out of the question, they argue, as the rugged terrain makes it impossible to dislodge them.
“Closing the camps means war and fighting,” said Azad Jindyany, a senior Kurdish official in Sulaimaniya, the region’s capital. “We don’t have the army to do that. We did it in the past, and we failed.”
But even logistical flows remain uninterrupted, despite the fact that Iraqi Kurdish leaders have some of the most precise and extensive intelligence networks in the country.
The Kurdish fighters are in the middle of a vast and complex web of relationships and ambitions that began with the American invasion of Iraq.
As the war has worsened, the United States has come to depend increasingly on the Kurds as partners in running Iraq, and as overseers of the one part of the country where some of their original aspirations are actually being met. Iraqi Kurdish officials for their part appear to be politely ignoring American calls for action, saying the only serious solution is political, not military. They have taken their own path, allowing the guerrillas to exist on their territory, while at the same time quietly trying to persuade them to stop attacks.
“They have allowed the PKK to be up there,” said Mark Parris, a former American ambassador to Turkey who is now at the Brookings Institution. “That couldn’t have happened without their permitting them to be there. That’s their turf. It’s as simple as that.”
The situation poses a puzzle to the United States, which badly wants to avert a new front in the war, but finds itself forced to choose between two trusted allies — Turkey, a NATO member whose territory is the transit area for most of its air cargo to Iraq, and the Kurds, their closest partners in Iraq.
The United States “is like a man with two wives,” said one Iraqi Kurd in Sulaimaniya, the regional capital. “They quarrel, but he doesn’t want to lose either of them.”
Kurds are one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a state, numbering more than 25 million, spread across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Most live in Turkey, which has curtailed their rights, fearing secession. The PKK wants an autonomous Kurdish area in eastern Turkey, and has repeatedly attacked the Turkish military, and sometimes the civilian population, since the 1980s, in a conflict that has left more than 30,000 dead.
In this small town a short drive from the edge of rebel territory, and in Sulaimaniya, 55 miles to the south, it is business as usual. A political party affiliated with the rebel group is open and holding meetings. Pickup trucks zip in and out of the group’s territory, and a government checkpoint a short drive away from the area acts as a friendly tour guide. Its soldiers said they had waved through eight cars of journalists on one day last week.
Mala Bakhtyar, a senior member in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that governs this northeastern region, said that there had been no explicit orders from Baghdad to limit the PKK, and scoffed at last week’s statement by the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, that Iraq would close the PKK’s offices, saying they had already been shut long ago.
“They are guests, but they are making their living by themselves,” Bakhtyar said. “We don’t support them.”
He added, “We don’t agree with them. We don’t like to make a fight with Turkey.”
Fayeq Mohamed Goppy, a leader in the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party, an offshoot of the PKK that still operates freely, contends that Iraqi Kurdish leaders are only paying lip service to wanting the PKK to leave. In reality, the politicians want the separatists around as protection against Sunni Arab extremists, who most Iraqi Kurds believe will move in if the PKK leaves the mountains.
Noshirwan Mustafa, a prominent Kurdish leader, compared the area to the mountains in Pakistan where Qaida and Taliban leaders are thought to be hiding. “For me, the PKK is better than the Taliban,” he said.