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Iraqi Kurdistan President Tells PKK to ‘Withdraw’ from Iraq amid Turkish Airstrikes

Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, is calling for the Marxist terror group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to leave Iraq completely, as civilians have died in Turkish airstrikes targeting the group. Barzani also condemned Turkish forces for killing civilians in his territory.

The PKK, Barzani said in a statement released Saturday, “should withdraw its fighters from the Kurdish region so to ensure the civilians of Kurdistan do not become victim of that fighting and conflict.” Barzani also condemned bombings by Turkish airplanes that had killed Kurdish civilians: “We condemn the bombing, which led to the martyrdom of the citizens of the Kurdish region, and we call on Turkey not to repeat the bombing of civilians.” Ultimately, however, calling for the PKK to withdraw from the area indicates Barzani blames the PKK for hiding among civilians for these deaths, more than the Turks for bombing Iraq.

Upon the beginning of airstrikes targeting the PKK by the Turkish government, which perceives the group as among its most formidable enemies, Barzani blamed the PKK for prompting the air campaign by being “arrogant” and hurting the peace process between the group and the Turkish government. “The PKK overestimated itself. The peace process between Turks and Kurds being threatened is not only related to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but also to hardliners in the PKK who do not want peace,” he said.

The Iraqi Kurdish government has worked to remove the PKK from their territory for years. Most recently, as the Islamic State has threatened to cordon off large swaths of Kurdish territory to establish its terrorist Caliphate, the Kurdish government has been more vocal in requesting that the PKK leave. “They should pull out and they must because the people of Sinjar will determine their own future and this is Iraqi Kurdistan. Would the PKK be happy if a Kurdish political party inside Iraq meddled in the affairs of Diyarbakir or Mardin?” Masrour Barzani, head of Iraqi Kurdistan’s intelligence forces and son of President Barzani, said in an interview in July.

Qassim Shashou, a commander of the Yazidi Peshmerga forces, made the same case in February: “We thank any PKK leader that can pull these forces out of the area, because their presence will create tension and conflict and we don’t want these forces to be here.”

Supporters of the PKK in the region say, however, that their bravery saved thousands of lives on Mount Sinjar, where the Islamic State had forced thousands of Yazidis to retreat. “If it wasn’t for the PKK everyone would have died on that mountain. … We thought that they were bad people, but now we respect them very much,” said one Mount Sinjar survivor, who claimed the Peshmerga failed to fight off ISIS before the PKK arrived. The PKK has also invested in infrastructure in the mountainous region, including schools.

There remains, nonetheless, a sense that Turkey would not be bombing Iraq if the PKK had not established a presence there. “It is obvious that many armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants have been sheltering inside Iraqi territory for years,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement this week, responding to calls by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for Turkish forces to leave Iraq. “It is not possible to accept or understand the opposing attitude of those who can’t control their border,” it concluded. Turkish presence in Iraq has created a rare situation in which the governments of Baghdad and Erbil agree: Turkey should not have a presence in Iraq.

Turkey began an air bombing campaign following the suicide bombing of a Kurdish event in the Turkish border town of Suruç. While it was initially billed an anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria, the Turkish government has more often than not attacked PKK targets not only in Syria, but in Iraq. The PKK has responded to this escalation with more attacks on Turkish officers. Most recently, PKK terrorists attacked a military hospital in Turkey, opening fire on injured Turkish soldiers.

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