- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007



If Hajj Ali, a man in his 70s, was relieved to be going home after his pilgrimage to Karbala in Iraq, southwest of Baghdad, he did not show it. The devout Shi’ite from Tehran had just made his third pilgrimage to Karbala since the overthrow of Iraq’s late President Saddam Hussein in 2003 reopened Iraq to Shi’ite pilgrims.

Entering Iraq through the central Mehran border crossing, Mr. Ali traveled alone or with other pilgrims through war-wracked southern Iraq. He used shared local transport and paid for goods in Iranian tomans rather than Iraqi dinars.

The classic Koranic Arabic he knew differed so much from the regional dialects that Mr. Ali switched to Farsi when communicating with Iraqis. He said about half the Iraqis he met in the mainly Shi’ite south were fluent Persian speakers because they had lived in Iran or had business dealings there.

“Up to half the Iraqis we met in the south spoke Farsi and accepted Iranian tomans as money,” he said. “While we were there, a lot of Sunni terrorists were arrested and the Americans said that any Iranians found in Iraq would be killed. Imagine that!”

Throughout his five-week trip, the only time Mr. Ali entered Sunni ground was when he was back in Iran and crossing Sunni Kurdish territories of western Iran. The mountainous region had long been neglected before the 1979 Iranian Revolution led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

One of the main grievances behind the Kurdish uprising against the Tehran government in 1980 was that the shah had not offered Kurds the development projects he built in the rest of the country. Their rebellion was suppressed and they continued being ignored.

Though the region is visually stunning, Kurdistan’s restive Sunni Muslim Kurdish inhabitants and location near civil-war torn Iraq dictate its isolation. Visiting during Ashura — Shi’ite Islam’s commemoration of the slaying of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, by his political opponents — Mr. Ali encountered none of the black shrouds of mourning and self-flagellating crowds that filled most of Iran’s other cities.

It is a time when the struggle for their own state by Iraq’s already autonomous Kurds gives inspiration to Kurds in neighboring countries.

In the region, a simmering Sunni-Shi’ite enmity has turned into a covert war. Consequently, it is not surprising that Iranian Kurdistan’s Sunni Kurds inhabit one of the least developed parts of the country and are politically unrepresented in Tehran.

Shi’ites favored

“If there was a Shi’ite shrine here, the government would have built a huge mosque on its site and paved all roads leading to it,” said Abu Bakr, the driver of an old Nissan flatbed truck, as he negotiated the snowed-in mountain paths connecting far-flung mountain villages.

In Paveh, the biggest city in the region, Tehran makes its presence felt with armed guards standing sentry at the police station, built atop a hill close to the center of town.

Most public signs are in Persian, and Shi’ite imagery and names are given to schools and hospitals with predominantly Sunni pupils and patients. Many of the Revolutionary Guards protecting the frontier from smuggling between Iran and Iraq come from Iran’s Persian minority or the large Turkish minority that forms the backbone of Iran’s business establishment.

“Guerrillas from the Komala — banned anti-Islamic Republic Kurdish secessionist groups — would throw stones at our sentries at night to bait them out in order to shoot at them,” said a Kurdish soldier who served in Paveh in the early 1990s, bringing water to border outposts.

Sacked for selling water

He was removed from duty when his superiors discovered that he had been selling water to villagers who lacked piped water. Many politically active Kurds must lie low or flee across the border to Iraq. There, they can receive military training and political indoctrination at a camp run by Pejak — the Party of Free Life in Kurdistan — on nearly inaccessible Mount Qandil.

Pejak subscribes to the teachings of imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan, former leader of Turkey’s banned Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Pejak cadres are mostly educated men and women activists who gravitated to northern Iraq after the collapse of the Iraqi state and U.S. and Israeli offers of covert assistance in their struggle against Tehran.

Last May, a top Kurdish guerrilla threatened to begin hit-and-run attacks on Iran after the Iranian artillery shelling of Mount Qandil. “We have the right to attack Iranian forces,” said Cemil “Cuma” Bayik, de facto leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a quasi-socialist rebel movement fighting a decades-long guerrilla independence war in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.

In 2005, Pejak killed at least 120 Iranian soldiers in Iran, according to the Jamestown Foundation. In 2006, the guerrilla attacks continued undiminished.

Bush ploy suspected

Also active is the leftist Komala — Revolutionary Toilers of Iran — a group founded in 1969 and affiliated to the banned Communist Party of Iran. Last year, a senior Komala representative, Abdullah Muhtadi, went to Washington for a conference of Iranian minority groups, amid speculation that the Bush administration was exploring ways of working with the group against Tehran.

On Jan. 16, a commentary by Aref Mohammadzadeh in the conservative daily Jomhuriye Eslami, accused Washington of “devising a strategy against the Islamic Republic similar to the one that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union,” and aims at “fomenting and strengthening separatist movements and tribalist groups.”

“One of the duties of its recruits is to make connections inside Iran in order to recruit other people, and also to be in contact with Western authorities, organizations and institutions and present false and fabricated reports on the situation of ethnic groups in Iran,” he wrote.

Triumphant Iranian soldiers encountered last summer on the outskirts of Marivan in the Kurdish heartland claimed to have been involved in a skirmish the previous night in which “we killed the Khomeini of the Kurds.”

But very little news filters out from Kurdistan and the Ministry of Islamic Guidance in Tehran throws bureaucratic obstacles in the path of foreign journalists seeking to visit the province.

Foreigners kept out

“The mullahs don’t want foreigners coming here to see our situation,” said Hassan Arinadi, a teacher in a small village on the outskirts of Paveh. “If we speak to foreigners and the country’s intelligence agents hear about it, they come and harass us.”

Since the region is kept underdeveloped, smuggling provides a major source of income. The Kurds’ unmatched knowledge of the bandit-infested mountain passes connecting Iran and Iraq allows them to slake their neighbor’s thirst for gasoline while bringing Western electrical goods, weapons and alcohol to Iran. The Iranian government tries to stop the fuel smuggling by posting armed guards at gasoline stations, collecting the numbers and characters listed on license plates — a pointless exercise since the system is not computerized.

The government also rations fuel to 8 gallons per day, half the capacity of the tank on a Nissan flatbed truck — the smugglers’ favorite transport vehicle.

“You have to get used to sleeping in the snow at night when bringing in a shipment,” said Umar, a driver who uses his truck to smuggle Iranian goods into Iraq. “We know where the checkpoints are and carry the goods by hand across mountain paths before depositing them on the other side of the checkpoint. Then we move up the empty truck to carry them the rest of the way.”

• The author’s name was withheld in fear of official reprisals for traveling in unauthorized areas.

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