Bringing their rifles and hand grenades, the first Kurdish fighters crossed Tuesday from Turkey into northern Iraq as part of a peace deal to end a long uprising despite Iraqi objections to the transfer.
The rebels’ retreat to bases in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region is a key stage in the peace process between the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and the Ankara government, aimed at ending one of the world’s bloodiest insurgencies.
The PKK declared a cease-fire in March, heeding a call from its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is engaged in talks with Turkey to end a nearly 30-year battle that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
As the first 13 armed men and women arrived Tuesday in Heror in the Iraqi Kurdish area, comrades greeted them at a ceremony, serving refreshments of tea and cookies.
“We have been on the road for the past seven days,” said Sawashka Kawar, one of the fighters. “But today, we made it and arrived in Iraq despite the difficult journey.”
She warned the Turkish government that if PKK fighters were attacked, they “will fight back.”
The refuge offer came from Iraq’s Kurdish region, which enjoys limited independence from the central government in Baghdad. Iraqi Kurds were involved in the talks with Turkey.
Baghdad has rejected the deal, warning that the entry of more armed Kurdish fighters could harm Iraq’s security and add tension to already souring relations between the self-ruled Kurdish region and the central government. The two sides are in conflict over contested areas, including key oil-producing sectors and disputed areas.
During a session Tuesday, the Iraqi Cabinet reiterated its rejection of the deal and of the presence of PKK fighters, saying it “represents a flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and independence.”
The government said Iraq will file a complaint to the U.N. Security Council about it. “Iraq stresses its right to defend its sovereignty and independence in ways seen proper and in accordance with international laws and decisions,” said the statement.
In Heror, PKK official Furat Jakrkhouni said a larger group is expected to enter Iraq in a week’s time.
“More PKK fighters will be arriving if things go smoothly,” he said. “The withdrawal process will continue if there is no obstacles put by the Turkish government.”
PKK, considered a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies, is believed to have between 1,500 and 2,000 fighters inside Turkey, along with several thousand more based in northern Iraq, which they use as a springboard for attacks on Turkish territory.
Relations between Iraq and Turkey have been strained since December, when Iraq’s fugitive Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi took refuge in Turkey following accusations by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad that he was running death squads.
Turkish officials rejected Baghdad’s request to hand over al-Hashemi, who was tried and convicted in absentia.