Tensions on Iraq-Turkey border send residents packing

SHARANSH, Iraq (AFP) – A Christian Iraqi, 43-year-old Emmanuel was born and raised in Baghdad where he lived and managed a liquor store that has been in the family for decades, until he received death threats from Islamist insurgents.

Along with his wife, the father-of-two left the violent southern Baghdad neighbourhood of Dora for Sharansh, a Christian village nestled in the mountains of Iraq’s relatively tranquil autonomous Kurdish region.

“Who would have imagined that after having left Baghdad — its car bombs and the violence tearing it apart — I would have to search once again for a new safe haven,” said Emmanuel, who declined to give his full name.

“Even this beautiful village is no longer safe,” he said, as he gazed over the mountains towering over Sharansh, its orange groves, walnut trees and water springs, 500 kilometers (310 miles) away from the madness of Baghdad.

In recent weeks, dozens of Christian families like Emmanuel’s that fled Baghdad and other embattled Iraqi cities for towns in Kurdistan, have taken to the road again to escape Turkish threats to hunt down Kurdish rebels.

In June, Iraq complained Turkey had bombarded targets in its northern Kurdish region, which has for decades been a safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which fights for the independence of Turkey’s Kurds.

The foreign ministry charged at the time that Turkish shelling targeted villages in Dohuk province, near Sharansh.

“Several shells crashed in the vicinity of Sharansh. The situation is tense,” said Emmanuel.

“The Turkish army has massed troops on the borders. People are afraid and I don’t want to wake up one morning and find Turkish soldiers all around us. So I will leave.”

Turkey says the PKK, considered a terrorist group by Ankara, Washington and much of the international community, enjoys free movement in northern Iraq, where it obtains weapons and explosives.

Ankara has accused the forces of Massud Barzani, who heads the autonomous Kurdish administration, of providing the PKK with weapons, and has threatened a a cross-border operation to strike at PKK bases in the region.

But earlier this month the prime ministers of Turkey and Iraq signed a cooperation document to end the safe haven the PKK rebels enjoy in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The agreement came amid warnings from Washington that a Turkish incursion in northern Iraq would destabilise a relatively peaceful region of that already troubled country.

“We said that we will cooperate against terrorist organisations, notably the PKK,” Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki said at a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

But observers in Ankara cast doubt over the embattled Maliki’s capacity to persuade the Iraqi Kurds to act against the PKK, whose campaign since 1984 for self-rule in southeast Turkey has resulted in more than 37,000 deaths.

The Turkish army says that between 2,800 and 3,100 PKK rebels are based in northern Iraq.

Turkey also suspects Iraqi Kurds of harbouring designs to break away from Baghdad and set up their independent state which, it fears, would embolden the PKK.

Emmanuel’s concerns are also shared by Iraqi Kurds across the region who used to spend weekends and summer holidays in Sharansh to escape the heat and bustle of cities in the area.

“Last month I came with my family to Sharansh on vacation but one day we heard the noise of exploding shells, so we decided to return home to Zakho,” said Hajji Hassan, referring to the largest city in Dohuk province.

“We used to come to Sharansh on the weekends and for summer holidays to escape the noise and the heat of the city. Now we are afraid,” he said.

Iraqi Kurdish lawmaker Mahmud Othman insisted that tensions facing the region must be resolved through “peaceful dialogue not by force.”

Turkey, he said, “must acknowledge that Kurds have rights, and open a dialogue with the PKK to put an end to a conflict that has lasted for decades.”

Othman also criticised the agreement signed on August 7 between the Turkish and Iraqi prime ministers, branding it “a huge mistake that should have not happened.”