MANGORAYATI, Iraq (Reuters) - First shelling from neighbouring Iran drove Iraqi Kurdish farmer Haider Rasul from his village, now weeks later bombardments from Turkish warplanes hunting Kurdish rebels stopped him going back.
Along the Iraqi northern Kurdish region’s borders with Iran and Turkey, hundreds of refugees have fled since mid-July to small camps to escape attacks by Iraq’s neighbours on rebels hiding along the frontier in their long war for Kurdish self-rule.
Iraqi Kurds say they are caught in the middle as Turkey and Iran attack their villages across the border while Ankara and Tehran court their local government with foreign investment that has helped make the Kurdish region the most stable part of Iraq.
Since mid-July, when Iran began shelling, farmers abandoned crops and livestock for small refugee camps on the parched hillsides at the foot of Qandil mountains where Turkish jets now fly low across the frontier to hunt Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels taking refuge in northern Iraq and southern Turkey.
“I came here after the Iranian shelling, and now I have to stay because of the Turkish warplanes,” Rasul said at a camp where a dozen tents browned by dust sit along a river bed.
“Some people say Turkey is our friend. We see it different here. Here we see their real policy.”
Iran and Turkey have in the past bombed suspected hideouts of the Turkish Kurd PKK and their Iranian Kurdish offshoot PJAK, but Turkey’s week-long military campaign has triggered Iraqi Kurdish protests after seven civilians were killed by a Turkish air strike near the town of Rania near the Iranian border.
A Iraqi Kurdish farmer, his wife, three children and two grandchildren were killed when a Turkish jet destroyed their vehicle on a mountain road.
Iraq Kurdish President Masoud Barzani on Tuesday called on rebel groups and foreign governments to stop fighting.
“The main victims of these bombardments and military actions are the people of the Kurdistan region. I am certain that fighting and violence will not lead to any resolution. At the end of the day, peaceful means must be pursued,” Barzani said in a statement.
About 250 protesters marched towards the Turkish consulate on Wednesday in Arbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital, waving green, red and white Kurdish flags and chanting “No to the Turkish bombings.”
Managing the PKK presence is a tricky task for Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish government with Iran to the east, Turkey to the north and to the south a fragile, power-sharing central Iraqi government with whom the Kurds still disagree about territorial and oil rights.
That balance is even more sensitive with Baghdad and Washington now debating whether American troops stay on in Iraq after a 2011 deadline, more than eight years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Semi-autonomous since 1991, Iraqi Kurdistan is often touted as the “other” Iraq because it has become a safe haven and a destination for investment when almost daily violence and bombings still affects the rest of the country.
Turkey is a big investor in Iraq, particularly in the Kurdish north, putting money into oil, hotels and shopping malls. The Kurdish capital Arbil is awash in Turkish businesses.
But Kurdish lawmakers have been the most vocal in calling for U.S. presence in Iraq to act as a buffer against internal divisions and incursions by neighbouring countries.
Turkey’s military said on Tuesday it had killed up to 100 Kurdish rebels in six days of air strikes on northern Iraq, but guerrillas still launched more attacks far inside Turkey.
Turkey’s strikes are the first in the mountains of northern Iraq in more than a year and are meant as retaliation for an escalation of guerrilla attacks after the collapse of efforts to negotiate a settlement to the 27-year-old conflict.
A PKK spokesman dismissed the Turkish claim as propaganda and the casualties could not be independently confirmed.
Those competing claims mean little in the Iraqi village of Sone along the Iranian border, where shells last month tore chunks off a school roof and crashed into Hamed Hussein’s family home, leaving a crater in the concrete floor of one bedroom.
“Now we don’t know whether to stay or leave,” he said standing amid the shattered glass and debris.
Nearby in another refugee camp, Mohammed Rosul says he escaped from Iranian shelling like many of his neighbours and now listens at night with his children to Turkish jets overhead.
“Iran knows we are just civilians, and still they attack us,” he said. “Are these children PJAK rebels?”
Editing by Jon Hemming