The executive compound of Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, sits high on a ridge along the northern edge of the Mesopotamian plain, on a spot that was once a summer resort under the former regime. With its eagle’s-nest views, helipad getaway and fierce peshmerga guards, the hilltop redoubt feels like the lair of a James Bond villain — which is exactly how many Turks think of Barzani.
In the uproar over the killings of Turkish soldiers by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) — a rebel group of Turkish Kurds fighting the Turkish state — the Turkish media has portrayed Barzani as a warlord gone wild. The Turks accuse him of supporting the PKK, which maintains sanctuaries in the mountains of Barzani’s domain in northern Iraq, in order to further his own Kurdish nationalist agenda. U.S. officials have pressed Barzani and the Kurdish leadership to take action against the PKK, at least to stem the flow of people and supplies to their mountain camps, and to arrest PKK leaders based in Erbil, Barzani’s regional capital. Some American commentators have even wondered if Barzani is using the PKK as a playing card to be traded away at some future date in exchange for Turkish recognition of independence for Iraqi Kurdistan.
But in a recent interview with TIME and other foreign media, Barzani remained adamant that he wouldn’t direct Kurdish security forces to act against the PKK, nor would he be intimidated by possible Turkish military incursions into Northern Iraq.
“I am not an enemy of Turkey; I am a friend of the Turkish people,” he says. “But I do not accept the language of threatening and blackmailing from the government of Turkey.”
Barzani and the Kurdish leadership claim they are unable to eject the PKK from Iraq, and that doing so is not their responsibility, anyway. The PKK made its way into these mountains during the early 1990s, when the no-flight zone imposed by the U.S. against Saddam Hussein’s air force created a power vacuum. And although Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga cooperated with some of the many Turkish military operations against the PKK during that period, the bloody experience has left them unwilling to repeat the same mistakes. “This is not a problem that can be solved by force,” says Barzani, himself a former guerrilla commander. “[The Turks] have tried military operations in the last 23 years. Now, it’s time for the Turkish people to ask their military what they did in the last 23 years, and why they didn’t solve it.”
Barzani believes that what’s needed instead is a political solution to the conflict between Turkey and the PKK. “If they adopt a peaceful approach, we are ready to help as much as we can,” he says. “If Turkey came up with a peaceful initiative and the PKK rejects that, then all the Kurdistanis will take up a position against the PKK.”
Turkey, however, treats the PKK simply as a problem of terrorism. (The U.S. has also designated the organization as a terrorist group.) Barzani claims that the Turks’ unwillingness to consider anything but force against the PKK is a sign that Turkey’s agenda goes beyond resolving the situation at hand. “Honestly, I am about to be convinced that the PKK is only an excuse and that part of the real target is the Kurdistan region itself,” he says. The other target, he suggests, is the moderate Islamists of Turkey’s ruling AK party, which is opposed by Turkey’s fiercely secularist generals. “This is part of their internal disputes and problems,” adds Barzani.
The Iraqi Kurdish leader talks tough in the face of threatened Turkish intervention. “If the Kurdish question is not solved, there will not be security or stability in this region,” he said. “If there is an invasion it means war. If they invade and enter the Iraqi Kurdistan region and they attack us, of course we have to defend ourselves. If they attack our people, our interests, our territories, then there will be no limit.”
Even as Turkey ratchets up its threats and Washington scrambles to avert a showdown between two of its key regional allies by pressing for more action on the Iraqi side, Massoud Barzani is showing no signs of backing down.