Party of Free Life of Kurdistan
|Party of Free Life of Kurdistan|
|Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê|
|Leader||Abdul Rahman Haji Ahmadi|
|Armed wing||East Kurdistan Defence Forces (HRK)|
|Religion||None (Marxist humanist)|
|International affiliation||Koma Civakên Kurdistan|
The Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (Kurdish: پارتی ژیانی ئازادی کوردستان or Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê or PJAK, also known in English as Free Life Party of Kurdistan, Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, and sometimes referred to as PEJAK), is a Kurdish political and militant organisation which has waged an intermittent armed struggle since 2004 against the Iranian government to seek cultural and political rights and self-determination for Kurds in Iran.
Most experts describe PJAK as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). According to the New York Times, the PJAK shares the same leadership and logistics of the PKK militants in Turkey, as well as allegiance to its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, but unlike the PKK fights Iranian government forces rather than the Turkish government ones. Both groups are members of the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (Koma Civakên Kurdistan or KCK), an umbrella group of Kurdish political and insurgent groups in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq.
The membership of PJAK's armed wing, the HRK, is estimated to be 3,000 and come from Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and the Kurdish diaspora. The group is considered a banned terrorist organisation by Iran, Turkey, and the United States.
Policies and structure
The exact history of PJAK is widely disputed. Turkey and Iran claim that PJAK is no more than an off-shoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). According to some sources, members of the PKK founded the PJAK in 2004 as an Iranian equivalent to their leftist-nationalist insurgency against the Turkish government.
According to founding members of PJAK, however, the group began in Iran around 1997 as an entirely peaceful student-based human rights movement. The group was inspired by the success of Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region and by the PKK's struggle in Turkey. Discouraged by the failure of previous Kurdish revolts, however, PJAK's leaders initially worked only to maintain and build a Kurdish national identity and to thwart the Iranian government's attempts to re-brand Iranian Kurds as ethnic Persians or Aryans. After a series of government crackdowns against Kurdish activists and intellectuals, the group's leadership moved to the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1999. There they settled in the area controlled by the PKK on the slopes of Mount Qandil—less than 10 miles from the Iranian border. Once established at Qandil and operating under the PKK's security umbrella, PJAK adopted many of the political ideas and military strategies of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, whose theories had initially inspired PJAK's founders while still in Iran. The PKK's ideological influence also transformed PJAK from a civil rights movement to a more ambitious and multi-directional independence movement, aided by the transfer of many seasoned PKK fighters of Iranian origin into PJAK.
The present leader of the organisation is Abdul Rahman Haji Ahmadi. According to the Washington Times, half the members of PJAK are women, many of them still in their teens. The group actively recruits female guerrillas and states that its "cruelest and fiercest fighters" are women drawn to the movement's "radical feminism".
PJAK is a member of the Koma Civakên Kurdistan (KCK), which is an alliance of outlawed Kurdish groups and divisions led by an elected Executive Council. The KCK is in charge of a number of decisions under the movement, and often, release press statements on behalf of its members.
The PJAK also has sub-divisions:
- PJAK's armed-wing - "East Kurdistan Defence Forces" (Hêzên Rojhilata Kurdistan, HRK);
- PJAK women's branch - "East Kurdistan Women Union" (Yekêtiya Jinên Rojhilata Kurdistan, YJRK), dedicated to serving women's interests within the group and women interests in general;
- Youth and student branch.
The PKK is also a member of KCK, and according to the New York Times, the PJAK and PKK "appear to a large extent to be one and the same, and share the same goal: fighting campaigns to win new autonomy and rights for Kurds. The only difference is that the PJAK fights in Iran, and PKK fights in Turkey. They share leadership, logistics and allegiance to Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader currently imprisoned in Turkey."
Like the present PKK goals in Turkey, PJAK leaders say their long-term goals are to establish an autonomous Kurdish region within the Iranian state. PJAK leadership claims that the group's goals are mainly focused on replacing Iran's theocracy with a "democratic and federal government", where "self-rule is granted to all ethnic minorities of Iran, including Arabs, Azeris, and Kurds".
Armed conflict and arrests
|East Kurdistan Defence Forces (Hêzên Rojhilata Kurdistan, HRK)|
|Dates of operation||2004–present|
|Leader(s)||Abdul Rahman Haji Ahmadi|
|Motives||To establish semiautonomous regional entities or Kurdish federal states in Iran, Turkey and Syria similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government, and establish a democratic confederalism as theorised by Abdullah Öcalan.|
|Active region(s)||Iraq, Turkey and Iran|
The armed wing of the PJAK, the East Kurdistan Defence Forces (Kurdish: Hêzên Rojhilata Kurdistan, HRK), is engaged in an armed conflict with the Iranian authorities since 2004.
PJAK killed 24 members of Iranian security forces on 3 April 2006, in retaliation for the killing of 10 Kurds demonstrating in Maku by Iranian security forces. On April 10, 2006, seven PJAK members were arrested in Iran, on suspicion that they had killed three Iranian security force personnel. PJAK set off a bomb on 8 May 2006 in Kermanshah, wounding five people at a government building.
As early as mid-2006, the Iranian security forces have confronted PJAK guerrillas in many different occasions along the border inside Iran. Since then, the United States news channel MSNBC claims that the Iranian military has begun bombardments of Kurdish villages in Iraq along the Iranian border while claiming that their primary targets have been PJAK militants. A number of civilians have died. PJAK claims its guerrillas fight inside Iran, and in August 2007, managed to destroy an Iranian military helicopter that was conducting a forward operation of bombardment by Iranian forces.
On 24 April 2009, PJAK rebels attacked a police station in Kermanshah province. According to Iranian government sources, 18 policemen and 8 rebels were killed in a fierce gun battle. Iran responded a week later by attacking Kurdish villages in the border area of Panjwin inside Iraq using helicopter gunships. According to Iraqi border guards officials, the area attacked by Iran was not considered a stronghold of PJAK, that appeared to have been the target of the raid. According to the ICRC, more than 800 Iraqi Kurds have been forced from their homes by the recent cross-border violence.
On 16 July 2011, the Iranian army launched a major offensive against PJAK compounds in the mountainous regions of northern Iraq. According to the Revolutionary Guards dozens of rebels have been killed. According to the state-run IRNA news agency on 26 July, PJAK militants were killed in clashes in several towns in West Azerbaijan province. Kurdish media reported that at least five Revolutionary Guards were killed.
PJAK spokesperson Sherzad Kemankar announced in an interview with the Iraqi Kurdish newspapers Hawlati and Awene that the Iranian forces attacked PJAK strongholds on July 16, however PJAK succeeded in pushing back the Iranian military to their original positions and 53 Iranian soldiers were killed in the battle while PJAK lost two fighters. Sherzad Kemankar also pointed out that Iranian forces were carrying out a joint operation with Ansar al-Islam using heavy weaponry. Iranian media later reported that General Abbas Asemi, one of the most senior IRGC commanders in the holy city of Qom along with at least 5 other Revolutionary Guard soldiers were killed in clashes with Kurdish rebels near the Iraq border.
The Iranian government blames the PJAK for sabotage attacks on gas pipelines and ambushing its troops, according to Reuters, aid agencies say shelling by the Revolutionary Guard has "killed some civilians and forced hundreds to flee their homes" in the area. The Revolutionary Guard denies the charge.
On 8 August 2011, during a lull for Ramadan in the Pasdaran offensive, PJAK leader Haji Ahmadi, told an interviewer his group is prepared to negotiate with Iran and maintained that Kurdish issues need to be solved through "peaceful means". Haji Ahmadi acknowledged that in some cases compromise is inevitable and indicated that PJAK is willing to lay down its arms. He said fighting may not help Kurds secure political and cultural rights in Iran. However, the Guards resumed their offensive on September 2 and rejected any ceasefire call by PJAK, saying the Kurdish rebels have no choice but to lay down arms or leave the border areas. On 19 September, Iran's ground forces commander, Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, told the Vatan-e-Emrooz newspaper his forces would finish off armed Kurdish Iraqi-based rebels in the "coming days".
The rejection of ceasefire offer by PJAK led to new skirmishes between the two sides. On 2 September, after a one month lull in fighting, IRGC began a new round of ground operations against PJAK. On September 9, 2011, Iranian media reported that Brigadier General Abbas Ali Jannesari of the IRGC was killed during a battle with PJAK rebels.
On 30 September 2011, Deputy Commander of the Ground Forces of Iran's IRGC, Brigadier General Abdullah Araqi announced that after the Iranian military captured the Jasosan heights, the PJAK conceded defeat and agreed to retreat one kilometer away from the Iranian border and to refrain from military activities on Iran's soil and recruitment of Iranian nationals. According to Iranian media, 180 PJAK militias were killed and 300 wounded during the last operations seizing PJAK's headquarters in Jasosan heights in the Northwestern border regions of Iran.
On 25 April 2012, Iranian media reported that four members of elite Revolutionary Guards were killed and four others were wounded during an attack by PJAK rebels near Paveh in Kermanshah province in western Iran.
Alleged Turkish-Iranian cooperation
Although the PJAK operates against Iranian rather than Turkish forces, PJAK officials have advanced unverified claims that Turkey, under alleged Islamist policy shifts by the governing AKP, has begun targeting PJAK operations as well—reportedly by engaging in Iranian cooperation that would violate Turkish obligations under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 2011, PJAK leader Rahman Haj Ahmadi, in an interview with the conservative activist Kenneth R. Timmerman, claimed that Islamist elements in the units of the Turkish military or Turkish government had deliberately aligned with Iranian forces to suppress the secular PJAK in Iran. Ahmadi alleged that the Turkish special operations, in conjunction with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), were utilizing IDF Heron drones to monitor PJAK guerrilla positions and movements. Separately, the Firat News Agency also alleged that Turkish armed forces sent up to 20 tanks and 300 Special Forces troops, reportedly to assist the IRGC, which in a separate move had purportedly begun using Ansar al-Islam guerrillas to reclaim Iranian areas then under PJAK control. Zimmerman has also alleged that the Turkish military and the IRGC maintain a joint headquarters at Urmia, Iran, at which Turkish military officials offer advice and train IRGC forces in anti-Kurdish activities. The Government of Turkey has since dismissed the allegations of Turkish involvement with Iran against the PJAK.
PJAK and the United States
Both the United States and PJAK have always denied any form of cooperation between themselves. Since February 2009, PJAK has even been blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the US government, freezing any assets the PJAK has under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibiting American citizens from doing business with the organization. Officials have cited PJAK's connections to the PKK as the basis for this designation—the US has proscribed the PKK as a "Foreign Terrorist Organisation" since 1997 in support of Turkey, a staunch regional ally of the US and fellow NATO member. Nevertheless, Iranian media and government figures have frequently charged that PJAK is covertly supported by the United States and its allies in order to undermine Iranian state power. For example, the Iranian news agency PressTV alleged that US military officials met in Iraq with members of PJAK in early August 2011 and promised them weapons and financial aid. Iranian officials have also claimed that PJAK attacks come "with the support of America and the Zionist regime".
Iranian allegations have found some support from several figures in the West. On 18 April 2006, US Congressman Dennis Kucinich sent a letter to then-president George W. Bush in which he asserted that the US is likely to be supporting and coordinating with PJAK, since PJAK operates and is based in Iraqi territory under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government. In November of the same year, journalist Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker, supported this claim, further stating that the US military and Israel are giving the group equipment, training, and targeting information in order to create internal pressures in Iran.
Hersh's claims sparked much fury in the Turkish media due to the ties between PJAK and the PKK, which has waged a decades-long armed campaign against Turkish state forces for rights and self-determination for Kurds in Turkey. Ross Wilson, the US ambassador to Turkey, quickly issued an official denial of any kind of American assistance to PJAK in an effort to quell the uproar; Wilson also sent a classified cable to Washington in December 2007 (which was later released by WikiLeaks) in which he strongly urged the US government to officially blacklist PJAK. In the wake of this incident, high-ranking PKK commander Cemil Bayık asserted in an interview with Agence France-Presse that while US officials had made contact with PJAK, America had provided no support whatsoever to the insurgent group. Maintaining that the PKK was the founder and only real supporter of PJAK, Bayık further stated that "if the US is interested in PJAK, then it has to be interested in the PKK as well", which would contradict the established hostility of the US toward the PKK.
Hoping to take advantage of the longstanding animosity between Washington and Tehran to try and obtain international support in its fight against Iranian forces, PJAK has—without success—made some friendly gestures towards the US in the past. In a June 2006 interview with Slate, PJAK spokesman Ihsan Warya was paraphrased as stating that "PJAK really does wish it were an agent of the United States, and [is] disappointed that Washington hasn't made contact." He cited the productive alliance between the US and the Iraqi Kurdish KDP and PUK during the Iraq War as a reason why the US should also provide support to his organisation. Haji Ahmadi, the leader of PJAK, visited Washington, DC in August 2007 in order to seek political and military backing from the US, but only made limited contact with officials and failed to obtain any such support. But in a statement released on 18 October 2008, PJAK accused the US of having passed intelligence to Turkish and Iranian forces as they conducted intensified bombing campaigns and cross-border attacks against PJAK and PKK bases in the Qandil region.
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As we gazed up at an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base set atop the 12,000 foot peaks of the Qandil mountains, a PJAK guerilla told me that Iran and Turkey had established a joint military headquarters in Urmiyeh, Iran, to coordinate their military strikes against the Kurds. “The goal of the Iranians is to drive us from the border area,” rebel leader Biryar Gabar told me. “They want to turn this area into a no-man’s land, so they can use it to smuggle weapons and Islamist guerillas into Iraq to fight the Americans.” ... During the latest round of fighting, PJAK showed off NATO-issue weapons they claimed they had taken from dead Iranian troops, including Western-made night vision goggles, GPS systems, anti-tank missiles, and BKC guns. PJAK has claimed for some time that Iran’s ally Turkey has provided NATO weaponry to Iran that has been turned against the Kurds, in direct violation of the North Atlantic Treaty. ... Under the direction of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP, Turkey has increasingly dropped all pretence of remaining a friend and ally of the West. Instead, Erdogan seems intent on throwing in his lot with the Islamists in a bid to restore the Muslim caliphate Ataturk abolished in 1924.
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