(Beirut) – Iran and Turkey’s cross-border attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan have killed at least 10 civilians and displaced hundreds since mid-July 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. Some of the attacks may have been carried out without sufficient attempts to ensure minimal impact on civilians, Human Rights Watch said.
Both Iran and Turkey say that their military operations, including artillery and aerial bombardments, are aimed at armed groups operating out of Iraqi Kurdistan along the northern and eastern borders. When Human Rights Watch visited those areas in August, Iraqi residents and officials said that many of the targeted areas are purely civilian and are not being used by the armed groups.
Evidence suggests that the regular Iranian bombardments may be an attempt to force Iraqi civilians out of some areas near the Iranian border.
“Year after year, civilians in northern Iraq have suffered from these cross-border attacks, but the situation right now is dire,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iran and Turkey should do all they can to protect civilians and their property from harm, no matter what the reason for their attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Iran started its cross-border attacks in northern Iraq in mid-June, claiming to be targeting an armed group associated with the Iranian Kurdish Party for Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) operating in the mountainous border region. Beginning on August 18, Turkey carried out attacks across its border with Iraq, targeting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed group affiliated with PJAK that is fighting its own decades-long conflict with Turkey.
Shelling by Iran
Since mid-July, Iran’s operations against PJAK inside or near villages close to the Iranian border have led to the displacement of hundreds of families, caused the deaths of at least three villagers, and wounded an unknown number of people, according to international humanitarian aid organizations, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials, and media reports. Farmers from the border regions told Human Rights Watch in early August that the shelling had damaged their homes and that they saw Iranian soldiers cross the border into Iraq and kill farmers’ livestock. The attacks on civilians and their property that they described were similar to attacks documented by Human Rights Watch in June 2010.
Human Rights Watch visited the Choman and Qalat Diza districts and Qasre, Sangasar, and Zharawa subdistricts between July 26 and August 6 and interviewed more than a dozen displaced villagers as well as others in villages still being shelled. All villagers interviewed said that Kurdish armed groups had never been in their areas and that there were no other military targets in the vicinity at any point before or during the shelling. The affected areas are in the Qandil Mountains, along the eastern borders of Erbil and Sulaimaniyaprovinces, in the region administered by the KRG.
In the crowded Gojar tent camp in Sulaimaniya province, Fatima Mahmoud, 70, told Human Rights Watch she fled there with 11 family members in late July, after two Iranian shells struck her house in the village of Sune, 30 kilometers west of Qalat Diza. She said the village mosque and school were also damaged by shelling.
“It has been more than six years that Iran has been shelling our area, but this year, it was unbelievable,” she said. “I don’t know why Iran is shelling our village – we have never seen any PJAK members at all. I have never seen any [PJAK] members in our village.”
Attacks by Turkey
On August 18, Turkey began a bombing and artillery campaign against the PKK, which it blamed for earlier fatal attacks in Turkey. On August 21, according to Iraqi officials, Turkish warplanes bombed a vehicle carrying civilians. The attack killed seven members of the same extended family according to relatives of those killed, local officials, and media workers. Turkey denied its planes were responsible.
The family group, which included four children, was driving on a highly travelled main roadway in a white 2011 Nissan pickup truck from the village of Bole to Rania to visit relatives. Shamal Hassan told Human Rights Watch on August 29 that the attack instantly killed his wife, Rezan, and his daughters, Solin, two months old, and Sonya, 18 months old. The attack also killed his wife’s parents and two other children.
An emotional Hassan told Human Rights Watch, “The attack was so destructive that we couldn’t recognize their bodies. I want the international community to hold Turkey accountable. They ruined my life.”
Media photos released by multiple Iraqi Kurdish news organizations of the scene corresponded with Hassan’s description, and showed charred and disembodied children and adults splayed on the ground near the remnants of a destroyed vehicle. Human Rights Watch could not independently verify the authenticity of the photographs. There has been no evidence of any military target in the vicinity.
While the Turkish military said that it has killed more than 145 suspected PKK militants with artillery fire and airstrikes in northern Iraq since August 17, it has denied that its warplanes killed the family, saying only that news footage of the destroyed vehicle was not consistent with damage caused by Turkish aerial bombardment. However, Turkish officials have stated that Turkish warplanes were bombing multiple military targets, such as anti-aircraft guns and ammunitions caches, in the area at the time.
Iraqi political and military officials have repeatedly blamed Turkish warplanes for the attack. An August 28 statement from the KRG stated that “[KRG] President Barzani strongly condemned Turkish military attacks,” which it said were responsible for the seven deaths.
Abdulwahid Gwani, mayor of the Choman district, which has been particularly hard-hit by Iranian shelling, told Human Rights Watch that the attacks by Iran and Turkey had cumulatively killed 9 civilians and displaced 325 families from Choman and 500 families in the Sidakan area.
“They [Iran and Turkey] don’t differentiate between civilians and armed groups, and the bombardments are more intense compared with last year,” Gwani said. “We notice that the Turkish bombardments are more random this year – they used to target specific locations in previous years but now it is kind of arbitrary.”
Earlier in August, Gwani and several displaced villagers told Human Rights Watch, the attacks forced hundreds of poor farmers to leave their crops unattended, destroying much of this year’s harvest. A number of farmers told Human Rights Watch that because there has been shelling each year during the short planting and harvesting season, they believed it showed an intentional effort to drive civilians from the area by harming their livelihood.
As in past years, aid organizations and local municipalities have struggled to meet the displaced families’ basic needs. The Kurdistan government does not keep an official registry of displaced villagers.
The representative of an international humanitarian aid organization working in the affected areas told Human Rights Watch on August 30 that the attacks have led to the displacement of 450 families, but that this number includes only families who have resettled in tent camps, and not those still moving around, staying with their families, or elsewhere. A delegation of Iraqi civil society organizations from Baghdad visited the areas on August 3 and reported the displacement of “up to 750 families from the areas of Choman, Sidi Khan and Haji Omran.”
The International Organization for Migration told Human Rights Watch on August 26 that it has so far distributed aid to approximately 295 families in tent camps – 275 families in Sulaimaniya and 20 in Erbil – but that another roughly 300 families from Erbil have been displaced and may require future aid.
In August, the Iraqi government summoned both Iran’s and Turkey’s ambassadors in Baghdad because of concern about the operations, and both the Iraqi and KRG parliaments have strongly condemned the attacks.
On July 27, an Iraqi parliamentary official who declined to be named told Human Rights Watch that, during a meeting with a high-level Iranian diplomat that day, the diplomat stressed the “importance to Iran” of creating a buffer zone along the Iranian border “with no residents.” The official said that the diplomat also suggested deploying the Iraqi army to the area, instead of the Kurdistan regional forces who now patrol the border, because the Iraqis are not “as close” to the Kurdish residents.
Officials of both the KRG and the central government in Baghdad have told Human Rights Watch in recent weeks that Iran and Turkey have been defiant and dismissive in their private responses. Publicly, both countries contend that they have a right to attack the armed groups inside northern Iraq and both countries deny targeting civilians.
At an August 21 news conference in Turkey, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said that the militaryoperations “will continue without hesitation when necessary.” The governor of Iran’s West Azarbaijan Province, Vahid Jalalzadeh, told Iranian state television on August 6 that, “The operation against the group [PJAK] will continue until all members are killed,” but called reports of Iranian soldiers crossing into Iraq “rumors.”
The PKK and PJAK both openly admit to multiple guerrilla attacks against Turkish or Iranian soldiers in a self-proclaimed struggle for ethnic equality for Kurds in those countries.
“The evidence suggests that Turkey and Iran are not doing what they need to do to make sure their attacks have a minimum impact on civilians, and in the case of Iran, it is at least quite possibly deliberately targeting civilians,” Stork said. “Regardless of their reasons for carrying out attacks, they need to respect international humanitarian law.”