WASHINGTON -- In American eyes, the Kurds are either good or bad, depending at least in part on where they live and with whom they happen to be fighting.
With their 25 million people spread among Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, the Kurds may be the world's largest ethnic group without a territory to call their own. Their fight for a homeland has driven various factions of Kurds to armed conflict with Turkey, Iraq and even each other -- at various times backed, opposed or betrayed by the West.
Washington brands the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, as terrorists. It applauded Ocalan's capture by Turkish authorities Monday.
By any measure, the PKK is a violent group. Human rights organizations say it is linked to massacres and hundreds of killings in the early and mid-1990s. In addition, say U.S. officials, it has attacked Turkish diplomatic and commercial facilities in dozens of Western European cities, bombed Turkish tourist sites and kidnapped foreign tourists in Turkey.
But the PKK is also anathema to Washington for another reason: Its target is Turkey, a NATO ally and longtime bulwark of U.S. interests in the Middle East.
For decades, Turkey stood ready to help prevent Soviet expansionism. Now, the U.S. base at Incirlik serves as a key American platform for patrolling and containing Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
"Turkey is an ally of the United States; therefore, the Kurds in Turkey are the opposition," says Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration and refugee law at Cornell University Law School.
Turkey's government suppressed just about any form of Kurdish ethnic identity until 1991. Under the late President Turgut Ozal, the level of repression eased somewhat.
"Generally laws remain on the books that enable the persecution of Kurds throughout the southeast and elsewhere, and these laws tend to be quite arbitrarily enforced," says Elizabeth Andersen, an official of Human Rights Watch.
But during the 1990s, Turkish armed forces have stepped up their military campaign against the PKK, to the point where they may have turned the military tide against the separatist group.
The United States has criticized Turkish treatment of Kurdish civilians but has not allowed this to interfere with the strong U.S.-Turkish security relationship.
With American acquiescence, Turkish forces periodically cross into northern Iraq to strike at PKK sanctuaries used to launch attacks into Turkey.
Under pressure from human rights groups, the United States has sought to prevent Turkey from using U.S.-supplied weapons, such as attack helicopters, against the Kurds.
On the other side of the spectacular, mountainous Iraqi-Turkish border, U.S. officials have a much different relationship with the Kurds. Americans are striving to unite two Iraqi Kurdish factions and their fractious leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, and enlist them in a multiethnic campaign to topple Hussein.
"The fact that Turkey is an ally and Iraq is our villain of course affects all aspects of our policies toward those two countries," says Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
To win the support of Iraqi Kurds, however, U.S. officials have to surmount a barrier of mistrust caused by a relationship with the West fraught with betrayal.
After World War I, the Kurds might have had a reasonable hope of carving out a separate homeland, except that the West coveted Kurdistan's oil deposits.
Such a hope was incorporated into the 1920 treaty of Sevres, a post-World War I peace settlement that stripped Turkey of most of the possessions of the old Ottoman Empire, but the treaty was never enforced, and an independent Kurdistan never came into being.
In 1972, the Nixon administration launched a covert action by the Central Intelligence Agency to support the Kurds against Hussein. The aim was to help the shah of Iran, a close U.S. ally in the region who was embroiled in a border dispute with Iraq.
In 1975, when the shah and Hussein reached an understanding to end their dispute over the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway, then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger "pulled the rug out from under the Kurds," according to author David Wise, who studies U.S. intelligence agencies.
Journalist Daniel Schorr, who obtained a 1976 draft of an investigative report by a congressional panel chaired by Rep. Otis Pike, a New York Democrat, quotes the report as saying, "Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical enterprise."
Thirteen years later, the West did not retaliate when Hussein used poison gas against Kurdish residents of Halabja in northern Iraq.
After the Persian Gulf war of 1991, President George Bush encouraged opponents of Hussein to rise up and overthrow him. But when Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south went into rebellion, Bush refused to intervene as Hussein sent attack helicopters to crush the uprisings.
As the West settled into a long period of trying to weaken the Iraqi regime through tight economic sanctions, both Barzani and Talabani were reportedly placed on the CIA payroll.
But in 1996, the two leaders fell out. Barzani invited Hussein's army to attack Talabani's group, which was supported by Iran, and in the process broke up what remained of the CIA's operation in northern Iraq.
Now the United States needs the Kurds again. Its options for curbing Hussein's threat to the region are shrinking with the collapse of United Nations weapons inspections late last year.
But U.S. courtship of Iraqi opposition groups is largely driven by Congress, and strong doubt exists within the Clinton administration that a unified and capable rebel movement can take shape.
In its latest marriage of convenience with the Kurds in Iraq, Washington is not about to support the Kurdish dream of independence. The United States opposes dismemberment of Iraq, fearing a split into separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite enclaves that would feed the region's instability.
Another problem for the Kurds is that they occupy parts of neighboring countries that are either hostile or cool to each other.
"The Kurds are in a situation where they inhabit territory held by four different states -- almost all of them at one another's throats -- that share a fear of Kurdish independence," said Makovsky.
"The Kurds deserve justice." However, "their ability to conduct the affairs of an independent state is at best problematic because of their own fractiousness."
Pub Date: 2/19/99