Lunch with Komala

Iranian Kurdish guerrillas in the hills of north Iraq explain their plan to introduce secular democracy.

komala 88 224 (photo credit: JAMES MARTIN)
komala 88 224
(photo credit: JAMES MARTIN)
Any proper visit to Iraq should include a call on one of the many armed guerrilla groups that inhabit the mountainous Kurdish region in the north. With the right contacts and a sturdy car, you can meet with members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) - a terrorist organization that has been at war with Turkey for 23 years - in their de-facto autonomous region high in the Kandil Mountains. Granted, a trip to their camps might be interrupted by the occasional shelling from Turkey or Iran, or an unpleasant encounter with an uppity young guerrilla at a checkpoint. Alternatively, one phone call and a 10-minute drive from the city of Suleimaniya can get you a lunch date with a group of revolutionaries dedicated to the overthrow of the Iranian state. And while the PKK only offers its guests flat Coca-Cola in small glasses, these guys will give you a full meal. A colleague and I recently decided to begin a tour of the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan with a visit to Komala. It is a small guerrilla outfit - roughly 800 strong - made up exclusively of Iranian Kurds who have fled the Kurdish regions of western Iran into Iraq. The group has been operating out of the foothills of the Karadagh Mountains, 50 kilometers from the border with Iran, since it was forced out of the country in the bloody aftermath of the 1979 revolution. Eager to gain a glimpse into the complex world of domestic Iranian politics and opposition movements - a world that is almost impenetrable to the Western observer - we scheduled an interview with Komala's leader Abdullah Mohtadi and were escorted up to the group's hideout early one Wednesday morning. We found the camp at the end of a dusty mountain road, where soldiers in green fatigues carrying Kalashnikovs - a sight I was well accustomed to after only a few days in Iraq - stopped our car and asked our driver what we were doing there. To my amazement, a female guerrilla stood guard at the camp's gate, over which the Kurdish flag and the flag of Komala - a red, Soviet-esque strip of cloth with a large star in the middle - flew together. She too was equipped with an AK-47 and wore the normal military fatigues, without any hijab covering her hair and neck. Only later would I learn that several of the secular guerrilla groups in the region, including the PKK, employ female fighters. As we got out of the car, the soldiers shuffled us into an office adorned with posters of Che Guevara and long-dead Iranian revolutionaries. They searched our bags for weapons and bombs, all the while apologizing for the inconvenience and promising we could take pictures once inside. As I would quickly learn, Komala - one of the few Iranian dissident groups to which journalists have access - is desperate for greater attention and support in the West, and its leaders go out of their way to accommodate the rare few who decide to come and listen to their story. Accordingly, the guards treated us gently and quickly sent us on our way to Mohtadi's office, where we were greeted with great hospitality. Tea was instantly served and a large bowl of fruit was passed around the room. The office was strikingly sophisticated. Instead of machine guns and rockets, its only advanced technology was a modern, flat-screen computer monitor. The bookshelves were stacked with memoirs by American statesmen and books by popular journalists. In between volumes in Kurdish and Farsi, an enormous Oxford English Dictionary stuck awkwardly out into the room. Mohtadi, who sat with co-revolutionary Muhammad Shafei, spoke English with a perfect British accent. Having spent many years in the UK, he had acquired the air of an intellectual-cum-rebel: a well-educated and cultured man who had traded a comfortable life in the West for armed struggle against the Iranian state. Although himself a Kurd, Mohtadi insisted that his battle was not simply for Kurdish rights or autonomy within Iran; instead, Komala is dedicated to the complete overthrow of the religious regime in Teheran and its replacement with a democratic government that respects the rights of all of the country's many minority groups. This end has remained the same since the party's founding in 1969 and motivated its early struggles against the oppressive, American-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi. "We actively took part in the Iranian revolution," Mohtadi told us. "There were no social or political freedoms [under the shah]. We had economic development, but no political development." Komala was one of several secular, leftist revolutionary groups that helped overthrow the shah, but its prominence was quickly overshadowed by the popularity of the rising Ayatollah Khomeini. And as the direction the revolution would take became clear, Mohtadi told us, the political differences between Komala and the ascendant Islamist parties became too great to ignore. "Directly after the revolution, there was a divergence between the Kurdish and the Islamist movements," he said. "We could not expect dictatorship. It was an anti-dictatorship movement. But political Islam led by Khomeini overwhelmed the whole movement." "No one expected the revolution to be hijacked by the clergy," Shafei piped in. "The nature of the revolution in [Iranian] Kurdistan was quite different from that in Teheran," Mohtadi continued. "In Kurdistan, the whole movement was democratic and secular. [But the clergy] could not tolerate a peninsula of democracy and political freedom in their country." Thus, shortly after securing power in Teheran, Khomeini turned his forces on the democratic holdout in Kurdistan, eventually managing to occupy the region and to force Komala across the border into Iraq. By that time, the Iran-Iraq War had begun and Saddam Hussein was more than willing to harbor the anti-Khomeini rebels. But Komala's relationship with him was always precarious: Saddam often tried to enlist Komala in covert Iraqi operations within Iran, only to shell and bomb the group - once even with chemical weapons - when he suspected it of encouraging the separatist tendencies of Iraq's Kurdish population. Since 1991, when Iraqi Kurdistan won limited autonomy from the Baghdad government at the conclusion of the first Gulf War, Komala has been able to operate with more freedom and security. The group is often penetrated by Iranian spies and assassins, however, one of whom was caught trying to poison its leadership. BUT KOMALA is not without its own agents in Iran, we were told. More than 95 percent of the group's activities take place across the border, they pointed out, and agents are constantly mobilizing the Kurdish population to resist the regime. "We are organizing people in Iran and we are doing it around the clock," Mohtadi said. "What you see here is only the tip of the iceberg." Komala's activities are now mostly organizational: mobilizing Iran's Kurdish population against or in favor of a certain measure or candidate, encouraging a low voter turnout in general elections or calling for demonstrations or a general strike. The group also prints a newspaper and has TV and radio transmitters from which subversive programs, in both Kurdish and Farsi, are broadcast into Iran. Komala's leaders last tasted the fruits of their labor in a 2005 uprising in Iranian Kurdistan. The rebellion was instigated by the brutal torture and murder by Iranian agents of Shivan Qaderi, a Kurdish opposition member, and erupted into clashes between Iranian forces and the population of the predominantly Kurdish city of Mahabad. Mohtadi's group quickly seized the opportunity and helped spread the unrest throughout the region. "Nearly a month [the uprising] continued," Mohtadi said. "It spread all over Kurdistan. There were demonstrations and protests." "It became so large we didn't know how to cope with it," Shafei added. Mohtadi quickly realized, however, that the uprising was not widespread enough, nor was Komala strong enough, to bring down the regime. And he became increasingly worried that continued revolt would bring brutal reprisals against the Kurds. So Mohtadi ordered the rebellion to culminate in a general strike, after which it would end. The uprising was not a complete failure, he and Shafei told us - it helped unify Kurds throughout Iran against the regime - but ultimately it fell short of Komala's revolutionary goals. Witnessing its only partial success, it became clear to Mohtadi that his group could not by itself bring revolution to Teheran. "It is not possible to topple the regime by the Kurds alone," he said. "[But] the Kurdish movement can be a vital part in building coalitions in Iran. It can be a catalyst to a broad democratic front." In Iran, he pointed out, there are "six main nationalities, all with their own culture, land and history. That's why we advocate a democratic, federal system in Iran. We have friendly relations with different nationalities in Iran and are building an umbrella front - the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran." KOMALA'S PUSH for greater cooperation between different ethnic groups seems surprising for a guerrilla group that is composed exclusively of one ethnicity itself. But while its leadership may be ecumenical in its worldview, the Komala guerrillas we spoke to at the camp saw their struggle against the mullahs through a distinctly Kurdish lens. When we asked Amjad Hussein, a young insurgent with whom we shared a spartan lunch of chicken and rice that afternoon, why he crossed the border to join the group, he told us, "Because Kurds are considered second-class citizens. It's a tragic life to live in Iran and to deal with this regime. Being a Kurd is reason enough for them to abuse you. We heard about Komala from our parents and relatives, and when we grew up, we had to choose how to live. I chose to join the peshmerga." Hussein tellingly used the traditional Kurdish word for armed warrior, which translated literally into English means "one who faces death," to describe the Komala guerrillas. And while he could rattle off the group's party line on its official political ends - bringing back political freedom and democracy to all Iranians - he clearly saw his battle as one for the rights of his own people. His body bore the marks of his convictions. Tattooed across his right hand was "Long live Kurdistan!" in Arabic letters, the script used by the dialect of Kurdish spoken in Iran. If caught by Iranian authorities with his tattoo, he told us, his hand would be burned until all traces of the ink were removed. Yet even in its most stridently nationalistic moments, Komala makes no claim to being a pan-Kurdish movement. Unlike the PKK - whose activities have been primarily directed against Turkey but who now support a sister organization, Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), operating inside Iran - Komala does not fight for worldwide Kurdish liberation. "The Kurds are a nation but are separated into different countries," Mohtadi told us. "We support the Kurdish people in Turkey, but we think there is no need for a war. It is better for the Kurds to take their place in the political process in Turkey." He reserved particular ire for the PKK, whom he saw as involving itself where it did not belong in the affairs of Komala's Iranian Kurdish constituency. "We will have no coordination with [the PKK], unless they commit themselves to the principle that they should not interfere with the affairs of the Iranian Kurds," he said. "We are a different culture in a different situation. Every part of Kurdistan should have the right to run [its] own affairs." Furthermore, Mohtadi continued, Komala and the PKK do not share the same philosophy of resistance. Unlike the PKK, which has been responsible for numerous suicide bombings, kidnappings and assassinations over the years, Mohtadi's group completely rejects terrorism. Indeed, despite training in the use of AK-47s, RPGs and anti-aircraft guns, Mohtadi claims that Komala is not now engaged in any violent conflict with the Iranian state. "The time is not yet ripe for widespread peshmerga operations," he said. "We want to give political activities and mass movements a chance. We think military operations could be counterproductive." "It gives them an excuse to sanction Kurdistan," Shafei added. But how could their non-violent measures against a brutal theocracy lead to anything more than a limited uprising like that of 2005? Mohtadi was adamant: His tactics would work and the regime would fall if the opposition could work better together. The Iranian regime, he said, is "not that strong. It benefits from the weakness of the opposition because it is not united and strong enough." This weakness could be compensated for, Mohtadi added, through the support of Western countries that are at odds with the Iranian regime. On a recent trip to the US to speak with State Department officials, he made a case for increased American support for the opposition, but received in return only vague expressions of sympathy. With his list of grievances against the Iranian regime, which includes many points in common with that of the Bush administration - its pursuit of nuclear weapons, support for Hizbullah and Hamas and refusal to recognize Israel - Mohtadi's group would be a logical destination for several million dollars of US funds earmarked in 2006 to support democracy promotion in Iran. But so far, his pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears. "The question is, while the international community is suffering from this regime," he said, "it is very inactive and indifferent to what goes on among the opposition groups. I would ask the whole international community to support students, workers, women and the people. Morally, politically, materially." He did point out, however, that UN-backed sanctions against Iran were beginning to take effect, and Shafei described with thinly-concealed glee the chaos that had broken out across Iran the night before when a gasoline-rationing law went into effect. On this front, Mohtadi had a very clear prescription for the international community: "Stop every single economic support of the Iranian regime." We pressed Mohtadi for his opinion on a possible US military strike against Iran. While the official stance of Komala is firmly opposed to the idea, Mohtadi was unsure what the effect of a US attack would be. He admitted that it could conceivably help incite revolution, but that there were better - and safer - ways to do so. "If people realize that the government is weak enough - by whatever means: a US attack, the impact of economic sanctions, a general strike - they will rise. I deeply believe this." When would that be? "Nobody knows," Mohtadi said, "I hope it's not too long." Until that moment, however, Komala will bide its time in the safety of its Iraqi home away from home, printing newspapers, training peshmerga and entertaining the occasional Western guest. Even after nearly 25 years of waiting, the revolutionary fervor of its leaders has not waned. But if you do decide to visit their tiny mountain village of Zirgwezala - whose name in Kurdish, Mohtadi told me, means "little wild walnut tree" - you should probably do it soon. Mohtadi did not expect his group to be waiting forever. "Everybody senses change in Iran and everybody is waiting for this change," he told us with passion as we finished our tea and readied to leave. "Millions are ready."