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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Inside the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)

Council on Foreign Relations

Author: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer

October 19, 2007


Tensions on the border between Turkey and Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq have reached a fever pitch. Turkey’s parliament voted in October 2007 to authorize military force inside Iraq, capping months of frustration over escalating violence and Iraq’s inability to reign in the Kurdistan Workers Party. Known as the PKK after its Kurdish name, Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, the group is labeled a terrorist organization by Washington, and continues to conduct strikes inside Turkey. Recent attacks on Turkish soldiers, and new vows to target politicians and police, have further infuriated Ankara. Yet the group, which formed decades ago to win an independent Kurdish state, has been greatly diminished in more than thirty years of resistance. Originally a well-oiled guerrilla force of some fifty thousand men and women, analysts today estimate the force is between three thousand and five thousand fighters. Nonetheless, with cross-border rhetoric increasing, some analysts say the PKK has reached a sort of equilibrium, thanks in part to its mountainous redoubts in northern Iraq, and the Bush administration’s unwillingness to put pressure on Iraq to curb the group’s attacks.

Why They Fight

The PKK was formed with Marxist-Leninist roots in 1974 and, until recently, sought to create an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey and parts of neighboring countries inhabited by Kurds. Today the aim is more in line with winning some level of autonomy. Often described as the world’s largest stateless population, there are roughly thirty million Kurds linked by ethnicity and language who hail from Kurdistan, a region spanning eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, western Iran, and parts of Syria and Armenia.

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Copyright 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on with specific permission from the Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to

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