Monday, April 3, 2006

MOUNT QANDIL, Iraq — A little-known organization based in the mountains of Iraq’s Kurdish north is emerging as a serious threat to the Iranian government, staging cross-border attacks and claiming tens of thousands of supporters among Iran’s 4 million Kurds.

The Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, better known by the local acronym PEJAK or PJAK, claims to have killed 24 Iranian soldiers in three raids against army bases last month, all staged in retaliation for the killing of 10 Iranian Kurds during a peaceful demonstration in the city of Maku.

Three more soldiers from Iran’s elite Republican Guard were killed last week in a gunbattle near the Iraqi border, Iran’s official news agency reported.

But the greater threat to the Tehran regime may come from the group’s underground effort to promote a sense of identity among Iranian Kurds, who make up 7 percent of that country’s population. PEJAK leaders say the effort is spreading quickly among students, intellectuals and businessmen.

“The Iranian government’s plan to create a global Islamic state is destroying our people’s culture and values,” said Akif Zagros, 28, a graduate in Persian literature who was interviewed in a simple stone hut at the group’s headquarters. “So we fight back. But our aim is not just to bring freedom to Kurds, but to liberate all the peoples of Iran.”

PEJAK units first began targeting the Iranian military in 2004. After attacking, the militants melt back into a supportive society or cross the Iraqi border to join several thousand guerrillas at the group’s leafy main camp a few miles from the Iranian border.

“Because the Iranian government oppresses people and prevents demonstrations, we needed a way to defend ourselves,” said Mr. Zagros, one of four men and three women who make up the group’s leadership council.

“The Iranian government has provoked the people of Iranian Kurdistan to defend themselves,” Mr. Zagros continued. “But at the same time, the government is quite weak in these regions, and so our people can respond if they are attacked.”

Unlike most other rebel groups in the Middle East, PEJAK is secular and Western-oriented. When the group’s members talk, their Kurdish is peppered with such Western words as “freedom,” “human rights” and “ecology.”

Iran has denounced it as a terrorist group and accused the United States of funding it. But at PEJAK’s camp, there is no obvious evidence of American equipment or money. The only weapons on show are AK-47 assault rifles and grenades, and the funding is clearly limited.

Each recruit has a single pair of khaki fatigues, and even its leaders subsist on simple meals of bread, cheese and fresh vegetables at communal outdoor tables.

The group’s leaders say that they have had no contact with the United States, but that they would be willing to work with Europe or America against the Tehran government.

“We demand democratic change in Iran,” Mr. Zagros said. “And if the U.S. government wants to help us, we are happy to accept their support.

“The U.S. talks about bringing democracy to the region,” he added. “But for 200 years, the Kurds have struggled against dictatorship and oppression and in defense of our human rights. And so far the West has not helped us. Why?”

PEJAK’s ideology combines the Kurds’ traditionally low-key Islam and pagan-influenced culture with the movement’s political opposition to the dogmatic Islamic government in Tehran.

Nearly half the group’s members are women, attracted by its promotion of sexual equality. Female volunteers receive the same training as the men, wear the same clothes, and greet visitors with a steady eye and firm handshake.

“Here in our camp, the women learn to be strong so that when they go back to Iran, they can teach women and, in fact, all people about our struggle for democracy and human rights,” said Gulistan Dugan, 36, a psychology graduate from the University of Tehran and a member of the leadership council.

“The daughters of our movement take part in all our operations, including military ones.”

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