JUNE 15 may be a record payday for Bell Textron, the Texas-based company that makes helicopter gunships. By that date, Turkey is expected to award a $4 billion contract for 145 attack helicopters, one of the largest single arms deals in history.
International competition for the lucrative contract has been fierce, with five companies including Boeing Aircraft and Bell Textron submitting bids. Last month, Turkey eliminated Boeing's Apache helicopter from consideration, and now Bell's King Cobra is the odds-on favorite to win the award.
About 80 percent of the Turkish arsenal already is U.S.-made, and the Turkish army has relied on Sikorsky Blackhawks and both Apache and Cobra helicopters to win the long (and under-reported) war with Kurdish rebels in the country's southeast.
In 1997, the Clinton administration granted Boeing and Bell market licenses to build the attack helicopters, brushing aside human rights objections from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch about Turkey's abuse of its ethnic population.
Since President Clinton took office in 1992, more than $6 billion in U.S. weaponry has been delivered to Turkey. If Bell wins the helicopter contract, as expected, the administration may again override human rights concerns and, in effect, broker the sale to Turkey by granting export licenses.
American-made helicopters are well-known to the Kurds. I have often encountered refugees from destroyed villages in southeast Turkey whose only English were the words "Sikorsky" and "Cobra." Villagers know that the soldiers who burn their houses arrive in Blackhawk helicopters, the troop transports that are made by the Connecticut-based Sikorsky company. And they easily recognize the rocket-equipped Cobras, which are manufactured at the Bell Textron plant in Fort Worth.
Turkish Kurdistan is a rugged, mountainous region, and helicopters have proved essential in the army's scorched-earth campaign. So far, more than 3,000 Kurdish villages have been burned, depriving the guerrillas of vital logistical support. Estimates of civilian Kurds displaced by the war range from 500,000 to 2 million.
It has been a dirty war, and both sides have been guilty of atrocities.
The Kurds are a large and diverse group, and their numbers spill across the borders of Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria and parts of the former Soviet Union. With a combined population of 25 million to 30 million, they represent the largest ethnic minority in the world without their own state.
The first Kurds I met were in Iraq, where I was shooting television news at the end of the Persian Gulf war. At that time, the networks had an appetite for stories of Saddam Hussein's abuses (the Iraqi dictator had destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages), and I had lots of work.
But when I started covering the Kurdish uprising a few miles away in Turkey, I found I couldn't give the stories away. I got taken to lunch, patted on the back and told the Turkish-Kurdish war just "wasn't on the radar."
Last year, after Turkey captured rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, tried him for treason and sentenced him to death, it looked as if the 15-year-old uprising might fade away.
Ocalan told his fighters to quit, and they eventually issued a declaration to end the armed struggle and to work for Kurdish rights "within the framework of peace and democratization."
But Turkey has repeatedly rejected such overtures. Earlier this month, Ankara dispatched U.S.-made F-16s to northern Iraq to bomb rebels who had withdrawn from Turkey.
Last December, the European Union, after years of rejection, voted to consider Turkey for EU admission, but only on the condition that it clean up its human rights record.
Now the EU may be having second thoughts. For more than a month this spring, Turkey blocked an EU delegation from visiting Leyla Zana, the imprisoned Kurdish member of the Turkish Parliament who has received the EU's peace prize. Then a Kurdish educational foundation was indicted on criminal charges of "inciting separatist propaganda" because it advertised a scholarship for students who could "read and write in Kurdish."
The government recently ordered a CNN television affiliate off the air for 24 hours because a reporter asked a guest if history might one day regard Ocalan as a Turkish version of the South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela.
A few days later, Turkey arrested the Kurdish mayors of three cities on vague charges of separatism. There are 37 elected Kurdish mayors, and many observers hoped that their political leadership would provide a nonviolent alternative to the bloody civil war in Turkey that since 1984 has taken 37,000 lives, most of them Kurds.
Turkey already has hired a stable of former leading members of Congress to pave the way for licensing the King Cobras. The lobbyists include former House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald Soloman (R-N.Y.) and former Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.). Best known is former House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.),who reportedly won a $1.8 million contract to lobby for Turkey.
While Turkey is a valuable ally, what U.S. exports need at the moment is "gun control" -- oversight that demands leadership from Washington. If Bell Textron gets the green light from Turkey, the Clinton administration ought to hold up the $4 billion in gunships until Ankara shows a willingness to deal democratically with its own citizens.
Producer and director Kevin McKiernan's documentary "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds" is showing in the Maryland Film Festival tomorrow at 4 p.m. in the Charles Theater.