QANDIL, Iraq—The very large potential bombs being built in Iran, as well as the somewhat smaller real bombs detonating in Baghdad, have distracted attention from the pitiless barrage of medium-sized ones that Iran lobbed into Iraq last month. In the first week of May, the Iranian military sent hundreds of artillery shells and Katyusha rockets whistling over the mountaintops into Iraq's Qandil region. As soon as the blasts began, most of the local villagers jumped into Land Cruisers, pickups, and tractors and fled for the nearby cities of Qala'at-Diza and Raniya. They came back a week later and found many of their sheep blown up or starving to death.
Iran had little interest in the sheep, or, for that matter, in the Iraqi Kurds whose villages they destroyed. Tehran was aiming at the Iranian Kurdish guerrillas who during the last two years have become Tehran's most noisome domestic pest and who openly seek ways to become an international irritant as well. The Iranian Kurds hate the conservative, ethnically Persian government, and they want federal autonomy in Iran to match their Iraqi Kurdish cousins' arrangement next door. To prove they're serious, the Kurds have rioted nonstop in Iran's Kurdistan province since 2005, and snipers from the Kurdistan Free Life Party (known as PJAK), the Iranian Kurdish guerrilla movement, have even been taking potshots at Iran's Revolutionary Guards, killing dozens.
The Qandil Mountains are Iraqi soil, but no Iraqi government agent has set foot there on official business for years. They are a steep and dramatic range, with folds and crenelations seemingly terra-formed to shelter the Kurdish rebels who run the area. The guerrillas prowl around with Kalashnikovs, levy taxes on the local Iraqis, and from camouflaged aeries monitor who ventures into their tiny territory. A few hours' hike away—across a border so textured with ravines and peaks as to be essentially unsecurable—lies Iran.
PJAK fled to the Qandils in 2004, under the mistaken impression that Iran would not hunt down its members if they were on Iraqi land. They joined members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (known as PKK), the Maoist rebel force that for more than a decade has been fighting Turkey. To many Turks, these training camps inspire the same fear and loathing that al-Qaida's old Afghan bases inspire in the rest of the Western world. (One possibility is that Iran, fast losing friends over its uranium fetish, shelled the Kurds as a goodwill gesture to Turkey, whose relationship with Washington makes bombing Iraq awkward.) A PKK military commander, Xabat Gelo, said that, like the Taliban holdouts in Afghanistan, the PKK and PJAK could hunker in caves for months, eating withered tomatoes and blocks of hardtack, to wait out air raids.
Even in these relatively peaceful times, their camps barely exceed Neolithic comfort levels. In almost a week of living among the guerrillas, I ate nothing more complicated than a French fry. I slept in dwellings literally built into the sides of mountains, with plastic sheets to keep clods of the mud wall from crumbling onto my face during the night. But the guerrillas looked healthy and seemed happy enough to be living in a place where Kurdish is the dominant tongue and where the landscape is lovelier than in any soap commercial or Bollywood dance number. Indeed, the terrain exudes rude health: The snowmelt water tastes sweet straight from the stream, and the thin mountain air smells fresh, especially if you're upwind of the sheep dung.
The Iranian Kurdish militia probably numbers less than 1,000 in Qandil and thousands more underground in Iran. It recruits female guerrillas and boasts that its cruelest and fiercest fighters are Iranian women drawn to the movement's radical feminism. Even the Westernized Turkish soldiers who temporarily seized my digital camera on the way back into Turkey from Iraq gave low, disgusted whistles as they looked at photos of the girls, some as young as 16, merrily toting Kalashnikovs along mountain trails. The guerrillas pride themselves on godlessness and sexual freedom, although they are celibate. Their version of sexual liberation is facile (one party member asked, "What is your opinion of sexual intercourse?"; before I could answer, he said he thought it was "very good"), but for many young Iranians, swapping a chador for a grenade launcher is a sweet deal indeed.
Iran would not have pulverized a whole Iraqi mountainside so unsubtly unless it saw a foe worth risking an international incident to snuff out. Although a latecomer to the insurgency game in the Middle East, PJAK seems to have thought shrewdly about its Kurdish forerunners' blunders and successes. The PKK, its direct ancestor, lost the PR game early by blowing up public squares, kidnapping journalists, and generally acting as though it was trying to open a Kurdish franchise of the Khmer Rouge. PJAK central committee member Zanar Agri says his party still venerates the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan (a man who ordered the execution of his own wife, Kesire, for political dissent). But Agri also says Ocalan made mistakes, and that in owning up to them, he has turned completely to "democracy, federalism, and human rights," the three values PJAK now takes as a slogan.
These words are not quite coded speech, but they are PJAK's way of batting its eyelashes at the United States, of implying that the world's superpower and this ornery Maoist gang might find common cause against Tehran. Most of the freedoms Turkish Kurds have been eager to spill blood over have been available in Iran for years; Iran constitutionally recognizes the Kurds' language and minority ethnic status, and there is no taboo against speaking Kurdish in public. The PJAK Kurds want more: They want secular democracy, they say, and they want the United States to go into Iran to deliver it to them. Kurds enthusiastically boycotted the sham election that won Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Iran's presidency last year, and they speak of him in doomsday terms that would fit in at the American Enterprise Institute but sound awkward in this rebel camp where everyone's heroes are Che Guevara and Spartacus.
"Ahmadinejad does not respect the Sunnis. He thinks they are agents of Israel and the USA," says PJAK spokesman Ihsan Warya, an ex-lawyer from Kermanshah. (Most Kurds are Sunni.) Warya nevertheless points out that PJAK really does wish it were an agent of the United States, and that they're disappointed that Washington hasn't made contact.
PJAK has watched how Kurds in Iraq have won their autonomy, and its strategy is to duplicate those efforts in Iran. After the first U.S. war against Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Kurds seized the moment to massacre local Baathists and create a de facto independent Kurdish state. They then waited for a decade to act as a proxy for the United States in executing a coup de grâce against Saddam.
The Iranian Kurds in Qandil are eager to do the same against Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs in Tehran—first by working with other Sunni minorities to destabilize the central government's hold on Kurdish areas, then by waiting for Washington to come in and help it make Kurdish autonomy official. "Ahmadinejad waits for Imam-e Zaman," says Warya, referring to the quasi-messianic "hidden" imam whose return Twelver Shiites await as a day of righteous vindication. "Kurdish people say Imam-e Zaman is George W. Bush."