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Deaths Rise as Outlawed Kurdish Guerrillas Continue Fight

The Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic minority without a nation of its own. Less than 20 percent live in northern Iraq where they have achieved regional autonomy. But others are still fighting for increased political and civil rights in Iran, Turkey and Syria. That fight, led by outlawed armed guerrillas, has resulted in the deaths of more than 40,000 people.

Kurdish militant fighters train and hide in the mountains of northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. The Kurdistan Workers Party, labeled by the United States and Turkey as a terrorist organization, claims to want increased rights for Kurds in Turkey and Iran, and uses violence to achieve those goals.

Rezan Javid leads PJAK, a branch of the PKK. He rejects the terrorist label. Speaking from his base in northern Iraq, he says the decades-long fight has been necessary.

“We have no doubt that we have to continue what we do, and that to achieve freedom we have to fight, and this is an acceptable form of defending our rights and our lives," he said.

Turkey and Iran have mounted a backlash. To them, the PKK and PJAK are terrorist groups. PKK militants often attack Turkish security forces in this southeastern part of Turkey.

Turkey’s ruling AK party spokesman, Huseyin Celik, defends a recent government crackdown on anyone suspected of working with the PKK, even if the link is indirect.

"I don't know if bin Laden killed anyone in person, but he was the leader of a terrorist group. We should look at terrorism and how we define it. If you consider a terrorist only as someone pulling the trigger, that would not be right, because terrorism includes those who are financing it, providing human resources and who [are] protecting them," he said.

But Kurds say violence breeds violence. And civilians in the northern Iraq autonomous area of Kurdistan say they are bearing the brunt of Iranian and Turkish military efforts to put an end to the PKK and PJAK .

Villagers say they are caught in the crossfire. These families were forced to leave their homes. They now depend on United Nations aid.

Iraq Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh is prime minister of Iraq's Kurdish region.

He says Kurdistan is against the use of the territory as a staging post for violence, and war is not the answer.

"Unilateral military actions won’t do. They are futile, they cannot solve this problem. There has to be a political track at the end of the day to address the root causes of this problem," he said.

Without a political solution, the fight in the mountains along the borders of Iran.

Iraq and Turkey will likely continue. And more will die.

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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.