Dominique Soguel
Senior PKK fighter Sabri Ok is helping to take the fight to the self-styled Islamic State in the Kurdish areas of Iraq. He and his group are also on US sanctions lists, highlighting the murky waters the Obama administration is navigating as it gets more directly involved in efforts to stop the advance of the jihadi movement.

Terrorist or ally? A Kurdish militia joins the fight against the Islamic State

The PKK is fighting to defend Iraqi Kurdistan from the so-called Islamic State. The group, focused on Kurdish rights in Turkey, is categorized by the US as a terrorist organization.

The jagged peaks of the Qandil Mountains have long sheltered the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a Turkish movement branded by Western powers as terrorists. Its fighters are now fighting the self-declared Islamic State (IS) in Iraq's valleys and plains, posing a dilemma for the same Western powers. 

A steep, winding road leads to a cluster of villages, where concealed camps blend into the landscape to escape aerial detection. At the first checkpoint, a portrait of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK founder jailed in Turkey, looms above a quartet of khaki-clad men armed with AK-47s. 

“The Islamic State only has a war experience of two years but we have 30 years of experience in fighting,” says Sabri Ok, a senior PKK leader, in a rare interview.

Last year, the PKK agreed to a cease-fire with Turkey. Since then, Turkish forces have eased their cross-border bombardment and shelling of PKK camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has long sheltered the group. Qandil lies just 30 miles from where the borders of Turkey, Iran and Iraq intersect.

Now, the PKK has emerged as a major player in the fight against IS, a jihadi offshoot of Al Qaeda that President Obama calls a "cancer" that must be defeated. 

That sense of urgency has made for strange bedfellows in the conflict. In Iraq, US airstrikes have targeted the group. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad's forces and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, have also targeted IS, which is fighting for supremacy with other anti-regime groups. And Iran is also eager to see IS destroyed. 

While the PKK isn't as estranged from US interests as Iran or Assad, it is listed by the US State Department as a "terrorist organization." Mr. Ok himself is a symbol of America's tangled and competing policies in the region. In 2011 Ok and five other members of the PKK were designated by the US as narcotics traffickers.

But the PKK, along with the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, is also proving capable in fighting IS, putting them on the same side of the conflict as the US and its allies. 

“The most logical approach would be to send ammunition and guns to those forces who have resisted the Islamic State, which proved they can resist IS attacks,” Ok tells the Christian Science Monitor. “Our forces are the ones that are really on the ground defending the people and the United States should see that.”

Key fighters

Kurdish officials and commanders credit the PKK for its role in retaking Makhmour, a town on the outskirts of Erbil, which was home to a camp for the guerrillas. PKK fighters also helped to open a humanitarian corridor for tens of thousands of minority Yazidis besieged by IS, which had threatened to wipe out their sect. 

A Yazidi woman who escaped the IS siege on Mount Sinjar says she's grateful to the US and the Kurdish fighters. “We thank Obama for the airstrikes but he must remove the PKK from the terrorism list. They saved our lives,” she says.

Ok argues that in a region plagued by religious and sectarian conflict, the PKK is exactly the kind of partner the United States needs: secular and in favor of women’s rights. Out of their fighting force of 10,000, he claims that one-third of them are women. 

“There is a paradox here, those who are killed and those who kill, both of them say God is great,” he says. 

Frontline presence

The PKK appears to be winning hearts and minds in Iraq. In recent weeks, its fighters have been spotted on the front lines of Jalawla, Kirkuk, Khanaqin, Rabiya and Sinjar. Kurdish fighters have also entered from Iran, reportedly in small numbers.

Alarmed by the IS advance into northern Iraq, the US, the UK, and even Germany have pledged to send more arms and ammunition to the Iraqi Kurds. Western officials in Erbil say these new alliances are uncomfortable. But for now it would appear that the Iraqi Kurdish government has the green light to work with whoever can fend off the jihadi forces. 

“When the peshmerga saw that the PKK and the YPG (a Syrian-based Kurdish militia) came forward, their morale got a major boost,” says Ahmed, a Kurdish fighter near Kirkuk.

Ok says that when US military advisers deployed earlier this month at Sinjar Mountain, where displaced Yazids were trapped, they encountered PKK fighters there. 

“On the top of the Sinjar Mountain, we talked, both our forces and the American delegation. It was not bad. It was good that they had contact with each other. But no decision was taken during that meeting,” Ok says. “We are open to a common strategy to fight against the Islamic State.”

Weapons from many sources

Ok said US weapons sent to the Kurdish Regional Government have not been distributed to the PKK.  “We haven’t received weapons from them yet. But you know, this is the Middle East, and in the Middle East you can find weapons from many sources," he says, adding that the group wants to be taken off the State Department's terrorism list. 

The PKK has been able to seize weapons from IS, which looted abandoned Iraqi Army bases in June. In Qandil, two US-made military vehicles the group claims it took from the Islamic State were on display.

A détente between Washington and the PKK is unlikely to sit well with Turkey's government. Ok says his movement's goal is to get Turkey to accept that Kurds are a nation with inherent rights such as an education in their own language.

Tensions flared this week over the demolition of a slain PKK commander’s statue in southern Turkey. On Tuesday, two people were shot dead and at least two others were wounded in clashes between Turkish security forces and PKK militants. The incident risks derailing the process of reconciliation between the two camps.

“If the [Turkish government] doesn’t take a realistic approach and concrete steps toward peace, it should know that we are not a movement that has no other choices,” he says.

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