QANDIL MOUNTAINS, IRAQ — Driving north through these folded, wheat-colored mountains, it is easy to forget you are in Iraq.
Miles to the south, the Iraqi flags disappear, replaced by the flags of Kurdistan, a state that does not officially exist. Here in the northern mountains, though, even the symbols of the Iraqi Kurdish authority are nowhere to be seen.
Most of the flags here are those of the Kurdistan Workers Party -- the PKK, listed by the U.S. and the European Union as a terrorist organization responsible for the loss of thousands of lives in a separatist campaign across the border in Turkey. Deep in the mountains, all the road checkpoints are operated by PKK guerrillas. A giant portrait of imprisoned guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan stretches across a rocky slope.
The fact that much of Iraq's rugged northern borderlands with Turkey and Iran are under the day-to-day control of a militant organization might come as a surprise to those who thought U.S. forces had handed over authority nationwide to a new Iraqi government.
The PKK's guerrilla camps, ordered closed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki last month, still dot some of the steep valleys and ravines near the group's makeshift headquarters here; at least half the offices of its political affiliate, the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party, also remain open.
The efforts to rein in the PKK are a new and strategically important front in the Bush administration's campaign to create a new Middle East, and one of the most complicated political problems U.S. forces face in Iraq. Kurdish leaders, for instance, have battled the PKK over the years in various intramural squabbles, but have been reluctant to clamp down on the group because of its popularity among the Kurdish public and out of sympathy for Kurds in Turkey.
Founded three decades ago as a violent Marxist resistance movement battling for independence of Kurds in Turkey, the PKK began a concerted paramilitary campaign in 1984. It since has mellowed its politics but still fields a force of as many as 6,000 guerrillas along the Iraqi-Turkish border, with about 1,000 of them well within Iraq, government officials estimate.
Within Turkey, violence connected with Kurdish separatists has escalated this year. In August, a group calling itself the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons claimed responsibility for several bomb attacks aimed at tourists that killed three people and injured dozens in Turkish coastal resorts. The group is widely believed to be an urban guerrilla offshoot of the PKK. The PKK has concentrated on attacking Turkish soldiers, using bases in northern Iraq as sanctuaries, according to the Turkish government.
In northern Iraq, the PKK militants get training in Shakespeare and Goethe, in the military tactics of the Thirty Years' War and how to operate a Russian-made BKC machine gun and a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher.
"We are here for one reason, and that is to obtain the objective of the freedom of our people of Kurdistan," said a doe-eyed young guerrilla who gave her name only as Ozgur and said she joined the movement when she was 13.
America's Kurdish dilemma stems from the fact that more than 20 million Kurds straddle the strategic borders of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
Iraq's roughly 4 million Kurds are arguably the United States' strongest allies in the war-torn nation, and U.S. forces would almost surely face a political backlash in Baghdad if they took military action against guerrilla fighters many Kurds see as heroes.
Yet the Kurdish guerrilla force here is battling one of America's bedrock allies in the region -- Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a stable, secular Muslim state in a region trending in other directions. The continuing failure to end PKK violence coming out of Iraq has driven Turkey toward a stronger security arrangement with Iran, which also faces militant Kurds along the Iraqi border, a relationship that can't help but be worrying for Washington.
"How important is the PKK as an issue? Let me tell you that it's important enough that the president of the United States decided that we needed a special envoy to counter the PKK and to try to get all of our efforts in the United States focused in the right direction, along with those of Turkey and Iraq," retired Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, recently appointed the U.S. special envoy to counter the PKK, said after a visit to the region late last month.
"We all believe that the use of force is the last resort, not the first resort," he said. "But having said that, that does not mean that we will not take military action. Quite the contrary: All options are on the table."
The continuing polarization of Iraq and the mounting sectarian violence there have only exacerbated worries among its neighbors about reverberations within the substantial Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Iran and Syria.