(Washingtonpost) - In the jagged mountains of northern Iraq, hard-bitten Kurdish fighters are increasingly besieged. To the west and north, Turkish troops are massed along Iraq's border. From the east, Iranian artillery is shelling the guerrillas' bases. And now from the south, Iraq's government, under heavy U.S. pressure, has begun to suppress the only sanctuaries the fighters have known for more than three decades.
Yet, in conversations at their frontline bases, members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, say they are determined to fight for their cause. They are motivated by long-held grievances and recently born suspicions -- not least over the health of their imprisoned founder, Abdullah Ocalan. They have stepped up attacks against Turkish soldiers in recent weeks, fearful that their leader is being poisoned, a charge Turkey denies.
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The fighters' determination highlights how much the movement is still driven by a man who has spent almost nine years in a Turkish jail serving a life sentence. "His prison is very bad," said Abdul Rahman Chaderchi, the PKK's chief spokesman. He demanded that Turkey give Ocalan treatment "urgently or change his location until he is freed."
With winter's thick snows approaching and the United States vowing to tackle the PKK, the specter of a Turkish invasion of Iraq is fading for now. But the guerrillas' underlying concerns reveal a movement that is attempting to stay relevant.
PKK leaders are worried about the increasing popularity of Turkey's Islamic-oriented ruling party. In July elections, record numbers within the Kurdish minority backed the party, which has eased some restrictions on Kurds expressing their identity, eroding support for the PKK and its dreams of a Kurdish homeland in Turkey.
Turkish investments in northern Iraq have soared since the U.S.-led invasion, linking Kurds in Turkey and Iraq not only economically but also in opposing conflict that could disrupt this lucrative trade.
Increased shelling into northern Iraq this year by Turkey and Iran has convinced the fighters that these nations are colluding to suppress the aspirations of Iraq's Kurds and their quasi-independent region and to seize Iraq's northern oil reserves.
Above all, the PKK's sense of relevance is closely tied to Ocalan's fate. Here in the rugged cocoons of this vast terrain, he is both hero and guru. "Our lethal weapon is our will and our belief in Abdullah Ocalan," said a PKK commander at his base north of the village of Sharanish.
Nabi Sensoy, Turkey's ambassador to the United States, said the Kurds' allegations of Ocalan's mistreatment were unfounded. "He is under medical surveillance not because his health is bad or because he has been poisoned, as they claim, but in order to make sure these allegations can be refuted. It means we are taking good care of him," Sensoy said.
In the northern Iraqi region of Ranj Prakh, three logs blocked an unpaved road near the Turkish border -- the first sign that the guerrillas were in control of the rugged landscape. A few feet beyond, words were scrawled in Kurdish script on the tan wall of a crumbling guard post: "Long live our leader Abdullah Ocalan."
A female fighter sat under a canopy of tree branches on a nearby hill, her Kalashnikov rifle at her side. A Turkish Kurd, she had fought her country for nine years. "I joined for freedom," she explained. "I lived in a community where I had no identity because I was Kurdish. And in the Middle East, freedom for a woman is very limited. So I am here."
In the PKK, men and women are deemed equal, on and off the battlefield. Nature is cherished. Family ties are severed, replaced by bonds among warriors so disciplined that sex is prohibited. "Abdullah Ocalan is not a human being. He's an ideology, a concept," said Akbar Jehangir, editor of Homeland Son, the official magazine of the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party, which is run by Iraqi Kurds and is closely aligned with the PKK.