A new luxury train that runs from Hungary’s capital of Budapest to Iran’s capital of Tehran made its first trip on Wednesday, Reuters reports.
The first branch of the route, connecting Budapest to Istanbul, follows the path of the world famous Orient Express, the early-20th century trip that used to carry Europe’s aristocracy to Turkey.
The new luxury train cars ride on existing railways, leaving from Budapest, heading east toward Turkish Kurdistan and dumping passengers in Iran. A ticket for the two-week trip costs more than $14,000, according to Reuters.
The route is operated by the private travel agency Golden Eagle, a British company that offers trips on luxury trains across Europe, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. The first train left on Oct. 15, the next one is scheduled for March next year.
JALAWLA, Iraq (Reuters) – The blood of two militants killed during Islamic State’s rout in the Iraqi town of Jalawla has yet to be washed away, but a turf war is already brewing between Kurdish and Shi’ite forces that jointly drove the insurgents out.
The recapture of disputed territory and towns such as Jalawla is reopening rivalries over the boundary between areas of Kurdish control and those administered by the Shi’ite-led Baghdad government.
Local Sunni Arabs displaced in the fighting have little choice but to align themselves with one side or the other.
Not long after Islamic State began its offensive across Iraq this summer, Kurdish commanders in the eastern province of Diyala invited the head of the largest Sunni Arab tribe in Jalawla to discuss jointly resisting the insurgents.
“We sat with them here in this very building,” said Brigadier General Barzan Ali Shawas, describing the meeting with Sheikh Faisal al-Karwi in a Kurdish peshmerga barracks on the banks of the Diyala river, lined with date palms.
“We said: What do you want? True, you are Arabs and we are Kurds, but the unity of Iraq is in our interest.” The sheikh had replied he would consider the Kurds’ offer to set up a unit for local Sunnis under peshmerga command, but he never came back with an answer.
Since that June day, Jalawla changed hands several times, until the peshmerga and Shi’ite militia drove the militants out on Nov. 23. According to Shawas, they agreed before the offensive that the Shi’ite militia would withdraw as soon as it was over and hand full control to the Kurds, but that has yet to happen.
Jalawla, which lies about 150 km (90 miles) northeast of Baghdad, is overwhelmingly Arab and was under the central government’s jurisdiction until Islamic State overran it. However, the Kurds say it was theirs until the 1970s, when Saddam Hussein brought in Sheikh Faisal’s Karwiya tribe to “Arabise” the area.
Now it is deserted except for stray animals, Shi’ite militiamen and peshmerga, marking their territory with flags and graffiti. The atmosphere is tense.
“Jalawla is Kurdistani,” is spray-painted on the front of a bakery. Fridges dragged into the road as barricades are beginning to rust.
Shi’ite fighters drive a pick-up truck with a picture of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the bonnet. One gets out and approaches the Kurds, finger on the trigger of his rifle, to ask if they have permission to be there from the head of the Shi’ite Khorasani Brigades militia.
“If they retain a fanatic stance about the areas they have taken, there’s no way we will allow them,” said Jawad al-Hosnawi, the Khorasani Brigades’ field commander.
Iraqi Kurds have controlled an autonomous region since the early 1990s and their fighters moved into other disputed areas this year to combat Islamic State.
But Hosnawi rejects any further Kurdish ambitions. “Our problem is if they want to separate from Iraq or form an ethnic state – no way,” he said.
Cats pick through uncollected rubbish in Jalawla and a cow strolls down the street, oblivious to the danger of thousands of mines planted by the militants. A burst of gunfire and the occasional thud of an explosion can be heard.
Shawas promised civilians would be allowed to return, except those who sided with Islamic State, once a bomb disposal team finishes its work, and water and electricity are restored.
Hosnawi said the Kurds were bulldozing Sunni homes to discourage them from coming back.
Many Jalawla residents are camping a few kilometers away on a football pitch, its perimeter fence draped with laundry. They celebrated the news that Islamic State had been forced from Jalawla and the adjacent town of Saadiya.
Most said they had fled not the militants, but air strikes targeting them. Now they fear the Shi’ite forces, who have killed Sunnis and destroyed their homes in other towns they recaptured from Islamic States.
“We want to go back but the militias will slaughter us,” said a 40-year-old farmer from Saadiya who was too afraid to give his name. “We ask the peshmerga to annex Jalawla and Saadiya to the (Kurdistan) region so we can live in peace.”
To slow enemy advances, Islamic State blew up bridges across the milky waters of the Diyala river, into which some militants flung themselves to escape when the game was up.
The blood of two insurgents who did not get away stains the entrance to a shop that used to sell roofing. Its shutters are down now and daubed with Shi’ite slogans.
Sheikh Faisal confirmed rejecting the Kurds’ proposal, and says his tribe had fought the peshmerga to prevent them taking over a base abandoned by the Iraqi army.
“They won’t let Arabs return, mostly the Karwiya. They want to take Jalawla. It’s an Arab area,” he said by telephone from the nearby town of Baquba.
He denies collaborating with Islamic State, as the Kurds allege, and says the militants blew up his house in Jalawla because he refused to join them.
Unlike the displaced residents, Sheikh Faisal’s nephew Zumhar Jamal al-Karwi said Jalawla should remain under the Baghdad government, not the Kurds.
“We won’t accept Jalawla remaining in Kurdish clutches. If they cling to it by force, it will be retaken by force,” Zumhar said. “We are prepared to fight against the Kurds alongside the militias unless the peshmerga leave Jalawla.”
A group of 150 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have arrived in Turkey from where they plan to cross into Syria to battle Islamic State (IS) militants besieging the town of Kobane.
One contingent flew from Iraq to a south-eastern Turkish airport.
Another contingent, carrying weapons including artillery, is travelling separately by land through Turkey.
Turkey agreed to the deployment last week after refusing to allow Turkish Kurds to cross the border to fight.
Thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters gathered to see off the first batch of Peshmerga forces as they left the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil by plane.
The group of 90-100 fighters landed in the early hours of Wednesday at Sanliurfa airport in south-eastern Turkey.
They were then reported to have left the airport in buses escorted by Turkish security forces.
A few hours later, just after dawn, a convoy of 80 lorries carrying weapons and more fighters crossed by land into south-eastern Turkey through the Habur border crossing.
Turkish police fired into the air to disperse a large crowd of Kurds who had come to welcome their arrival. Some in the crowd threw stones at the police.
The two groups of fighters are expected to meet later on Wednesday in Suruc, some 10 miles (16km) from Kobane, before crossing the border into Syria.
Turkey has come under considerable international pressure to do more to prevent Kobane falling into IS hands but has refused to allow Turkish Kurds from the militant PKK to cross the border.
The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, although a ceasefire was declared last year. The government in Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters across the border in Kobane as linked to the PKK, which it views as a terrorist organisation.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has rejected claims that not enough was being done to end the jihadist assault.
He told the BBC that Turkey would only take part once the US-led coalition against IS had an “integrated strategy” that included action against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Kurdistan Parliament authorised sending 150 Peshmerga to help defend the predominantly Kurdish Syrian town last week. It was unclear why their deployment was delayed.
The Kurdish population in both Iraq and Syria is under significant threat because of the rapid advance by IS.
US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that America would “certainly encourage” the deployment of Iraqi Peshmerga forces to Kobane.
The battle for Kobane has emerged as a major test of whether the coalition’s air campaign can push back IS.
Weeks of air strikes in and around Kobane have allowed Kurdish fighters to prevent it from falling, but clashes continued on Tuesday and a local Kurdish commander said IS still controlled 40% of the town.
More than 800 people have been killed since the jihadist group launched an offensive on Kobane six weeks ago.
The fighting has also forced more than 200,000 people to flee across the Turkish border.
IS has declared the formation of a caliphate in the large swathes of Syria and Iraq it has seized since 2013.
The UN says that millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict have had an “enormous” impact on neighbouring countries in terms of “economics, public services, the social fabric of communities and the welfare of families”.
More than three million Syrians have fled their country since the uprising against President Assad began in March 2011, with most of them now sheltering in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
Isis activists are exerting their influence in Iraq and Syria by threatening death sentences for male teachers who teach women, and harsh punishments for teachers who teach any that fall outside of the group’s strict interpretation of sharia law.
People living under Islamic State rule in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria have been banned from owning academic books, studying subjects including law and human rights, and educating children privately at home.
This week – the start of the university academic term – Islamic State ordered university departments in law, political science, fine art, archaeology, sports education, philosophy, tourism and hotel management to be closed in areas it controls.
In Mosul and Raqqa Islamic State have ordered teachers not to teach democracy, cultural education, human rights and law, to maintain what it called “the public good”.
Teachers have been told they must have training in Islamic State’s interpretation of sharia, and should avoid certain subjects in curricula and exams “which do not conform to sharia law”, including “forged historical principles” – a reference to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and “un-Islamic geographic decisions” by other nation states.
Teachers who fail to separate male and female students were threatened with punishments and sweeps for illegal books and materials are common, according to an activist inside Raqqa who spoke to the Times. “I have many books of philosophy and history. [But] they are hidden,” the source said, speaking under the pseudonym Abu Wart.
He told of families that had chosen to have children educated privately at home, to avoid the strict laws laid down by Islamic State, who have drawn the most chilling threats: teachers who teach female students privately risk execution.
Last week students from the University of Mosul were allowed to travel outside Islamic State-controlled areas to take final year exams in Iraqi Kurdistan in approved subjects.
The Islamist militant slid a sheaf of photos across the table – pictures of beaten and burnt corpses, taken nearby in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir.
These, he said, were victims of fighting that spilled over from Syria: fellow Islamists he alleged were killed in recent days by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK – because they were wrongly identified as supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis).
The upsurge in sectarian violence within Turkey is undermining attempts, already faltering, to end the country’s 30-year fight with the PKK which has cost 40,000 lives.
“The PKK is trying to activate their supporters against us,” said Huseyin Yilmaz, a leader of the Islamist Huda Par party. “They were saying Islamic circles in this region are helping Isis.”
Such allegations, which even Huda Par’s political opponents says are untrue, are explosive in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast, a region smouldering with anger at Isis attacks on the Syrian Kurds. Frustration at Turkey’s decision not to intervene to relieve the besieged Syrian border town of Kobani led to widespread violence last week.
No one in Diyarbakir needs reminding that one of the bloodiest episodes in the Kurdish conflict was a war in the early 1990s between the PKK and Kurdish Hizbollah, a Sunni Islamist group linked to Huda Par.
“Our issue with the PKK is not from yesterday, it has a history,” said Mr Yilmaz. “Our reference is the Koran, theirs is Marxism-Leninism.”
Kurdish Hizbollah has no connection to the Lebanese group of the same name. It was suspected of having ties to the Turkish state two decades ago. Some of its alleged crimes became infamous. They included houses of death where dozens of corpses were found, hog-tied prisoners and a feminist activist who was kidnapped and tortured on video for more than a month before she was killed.
The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has thrust the plight of the Kurdish people into the spotlight. But who exactly are the Kurds and how will their responses to increasing instability define the future of the Middle Eastern region?
Mr Yilmaz, a lawyer and co-author of a book titled Hizbollah: the main defence case, said Hizbollah has long given up violence. But, in the light of recent killings, the group would “do what is necessary to protect the people”, he said.
By his count, six people affiliated with Huda Par were killed in the recent clashes with the PKK. One was shot through the chest; another shot and stabbed in the street and then partially burnt; three more were murdered in an high rise flat when an attacker used a rope to enter from the floor above; another was killed waiting outside a hospital.
He added that another man was killed because he was wrongly assumed to be a member of the party – he had an Islamic beard and his wife and daughter covered their heads.
Other Kurds blame Hizbollah for at least five deaths last week, blaming further fatalities on the police, locally enlisted village guards and hands unknown.
In a further execution style killing this week a Kurdish language newspaper vendor was shot in the back of the head in the city of Adana.
“These [events] are reminding people of the dark days, of the mysterious killings of the 1990s. No one wants to go through that time again,” says Gultan Kisanak, mayor of Diyarbakir and part of the Kurdish movement that regards Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s jailed chief, as its leader.
She claimed the total death toll was over 40 and blamed “provocateurs” for the attacks on Huda Par. She criticised violence by the police and said anger at the situation in Kobani and the unsteady state of the peace process with the PKK both fuelled the unrest.
“The government are trying to delay things,” Ms Kisanak said. “The lack of concrete steps has increased the tension.”
The government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan contends that it has recognised more Kurdish rights than any other government in Turkey’s history and that it is moving ahead with the peace process, in which its chief interlocutor is the imprisoned Mr Ocalan.
Hatip Dicle, a veteran Kurdish politician whose office is dominated by a photo of the PKK leader, adds that Mr Ocalan and President Erdogan can keep the process alive – because of their status as leaders.
“As long as both these men say the peace process is not over it will continue,” he said. Indeed, it was Mr Ocalan who finally called the Kurdish demonstrators back from the streets last week, in a message transmitted from prison.
But these are tense times. The government is increasing police powers following the protests. This week Turkish forces launched their first air strike on PKK outposts since the peace process began in early 2013.
Last week there was an assassination attempt on a police chief. The PKK has said it is sending its fighters back into Turkey, after halting a withdrawal last year.
“It is not very logical for the PKK to start clashes in Turkey, while Kobani is under attack from Isis,” notes Tahir Elci, head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association. On the other hand, he noted, the fighting has already begun.
Turkish warplanes attacked Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets in southeast Turkey on Sunday in the first significant air operation against the militants since the launch of a peace process two years ago, Hurriyet news website said on Tuesday.
The air strikes caused “major damage” to the PKK, Hurriyet said. They were launched after three days of PKK attacks on a military outpost in Hakkari province near the Iraqi border, it added.
There was no immediate comment from the military on the reported air strikes, which Hurriyet said was carried out with the knowledge of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
The incident came amid Kurdish anger in southeast Turkey at Ankara’s failure to intervene along its border with Syria where Islamic State militants have besieged the mainly Kurdish town of Kobani for the last month.
“F-16 and F-4 warplanes which took off from (bases in the southeastern provinces of) Diyarbakir and Malatya rained down bombs on PKK targets after they attacked a military outpost in the Daglica region,” Hurriyet said.
It said the PKK had attacked the outpost for three days with heavy machine guns and rocket launchers. The general staff said in a statement it had “opened fired immediately in retaliation in the strongest terms” after PKK attacks in the area.
Ankara launched a peace process with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 2012 to end an insurgency which has killed more than 40,000 people in 30 years.