Kurds face deliverance, devastation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HENDEK, Turkey - In the stony mountains of southeast Anatolia, an ancient Kurdish village echoes with the rasp of a saw on wood, the shouts of children, the laughter of an elderly couple.

All these sounds are fast fading from the hills.

The Kurds have lived in this region for 4,000 years. But their language, culture and traditions have been eroded by almost two decades of civil conflict, poverty and political repression.

Now America's war in Iraq could signal the revival of Kurdish society. Or it could plunge millions of Kurds in this region into another devastating conflict.

Once, Hendek, which overlooks the Tigris River as it flows into the plains of Mesopotamia, was a thriving hamlet. But residents here say two-thirds of their neighbors fled over the past two decades. Hundreds of other villages like Hendek were emptied, bombed and torched as Turkish soldiers fought separatist guerrillas. Hundreds of thousands of Turkish Kurds were driven from their homes.

The Kurds of northern Iraq, perhaps an hour's drive south, have suffered their own series of massacres, expulsions and consignment to "Victory Cities" - virtual concentration camps - at the hands of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Today, about half of the world's 25 million Kurds are thought to live outside their ancestral lands.

Despite chaos and episodes of vicious infighting, the Kurds of northern Iraq have ruled themselves for more than a decade, and have recently achieved a measure of economic and social stability.

If the United States and Britain defeat Hussein's Baathist regime, the Kurds are poised to create an internationally recognized, semi-autonomous region inside Iraq that would serve as a haven for one of Middle East's oldest cultures.

But if the Kurds seek to create a full-fledged independent state, experts fear, they could trigger a devastating regional conflict. All of Iraq's northern neighbors - Turkey, Syria and Iran - have Kurdish minorities. All of these neighbors fear that an independent Kurdistan would trigger unrest or even insurrections.

"The Kurds will be very vulnerable" if they move to create an independent state in northern Iraq, said Dogu Ergil, professor of political science at Ankara University. "This time, it will not be the Iraqi Arabs whom the Kurds will be fighting with. This time it will be all the neighboring countries that have Kurdish enclaves and see an unruly Iraqi Kurdistan as a threat."

There are 12 million Kurds in Turkey, the largest Kurdish population in the world. The Turkish military has stationed troops just inside Iraq since 1997 to hunt down the remnants of the Kurdish Marxist guerrillas hiding in the mountains. In the past few months, the number of Turkish troops has swelled to 20,000, according to news accounts. Generally, they have remained within about 10 miles of the border.

But if the Kurds move toward independence, Turkish military authorities threaten to dispatch 80,000 troops about 170 miles into Iraq, according to some reports. And, Ergil said, Syria and Iran could decide to follow Turkey's lead.

The trigger for intervention, experts say, would be the Kurds' seizure of Iraqi oil fields near the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, which would provide a strong economic foundation for an independent state.

Now it is up to the United States to restrain the Kurds, their staunchest allies inside Iraq. If they don't, northern Iraq could dissolve in ethnic conflict. U.S. troops could be caught in the crossfire, and the war effort could be jeopardized.

The Iraqi Kurdish fighters, called the pesh merga, have fought effectively under the direction of American special forces. In recent days, they have used overwhelming firepower to rout Ansar al-Islam, a Taliban-style group of about 650 Kurdish Islamic radicals who have attacked mainstream Kurdish groups opposed to Baghdad.

By Friday the Kurds had also moved to within 12 miles of Kirkuk, the strategically important center of Iraq's oil industry.

Seizure of the city could trigger intervention by Turkey and other states. BBC television reported Saturday that the Kurds have told reporters in northern Iraq that the Americans have asked them not to advance on the city.

Back in Hendek, war has been a constant companion. One more just south of here doesn't seem all that remarkable.

Femseddin, 56, who wears a red-checked kaffiyeh, is the mukhtar, or head man, in Hendek.

He invited strangers to tea but did not offer them his family name. (He said the commander of a nearby military base has questioned him about earlier visits by foreigners.)

Femseddin opposed military action against Baghdad because of the suffering he knew it would bring. Neither is he surprised at the tenacity of Iraqi troops. "Saddam's troops are more experienced," he said. "They waged war against Iran. They waged war against the Kurds.

The Iraqis don't have the equipment to fight. "But this is their land," he said.

He expects a U.S. victory, and will not mourn the toppling of Hussein. But his real concerns are closer to home.

Three of his four sons fled their village in the early 1990s, during the height of fighting between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish military. He doesn't expect them to return. "There is nothing to come back to," he said. "It's not the land of my childhood.

"Now, we are not a family. So we are suffering."

So are his neighbors. About a mile away stand the ruins of the village of Keraso, which residents said was evacuated in the 1990s during fighting between the Turkish army and the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, guerrillas.

After the Persian Gulf war in 1991, the United Nations imposed a trade embargo on Iraq. A lively and illegal oil trade grew, winding through Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and into Turkey.

Drivers from Turkey delivered potatoes, flour and cement to Iraq, and returned with oil. The trade undermined the sanctions, but it also formed the basis of the economy of northern Iraq and southeast Turkey.

Most fighting with the PKK ended with a cease-fire in 1999. But two years after the war halted, in September 2001, Turkey's Kurdish region was hit by another calamity - the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the United States.

Under pressure from Washington, the Turkish government drastically restricted traffic at the border here six days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Former farmers are trying to sell their trucks for scrap, for perhaps 23 cents on the pound. Many have little to do but play cards and backgammon at teahouses.

Despite its remote location and miserable economy, Hendek is a tidy place. It has electricity and gravel roads. White television satellite dishes sit on the roofs of mud-brick homes. At the bottom of the hill are a one-room school and the home provided to the teacher.

But these amenities carry a price.

Turkish television broadcasts in Turkish: It rarely carries programs in Kurdish.

Schoolchildren here, like all other public school students, are taught by a Turkish teacher in Turkish, not in Kurdish.

Until recently, the Turkish state did not recognize the Kurds' right to openly manifest their culture, teach their language or assert their identity - referring to them, officially, as "Mountain Turks." Emblazoned on a hillside near Turkey's unofficial Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir is the slogan: "How happy is he who says he is a Turk."

Under pressure from the European Union, Ankara last year eased some of its cultural restrictions - allowing limited television and radio broadcasts in Kurdish, and the teaching of the Kurdish language in private schools.

But so far, these reforms are only on paper. And the government still appears eager to crack down on any activity that hints at support for an independent Kurdish state.

After the Kurdish Workers Party called on Kurds in late 2001 to give their children Kurdish names, the Turkish Interior Ministry ordered regional governors to make sure parents named their children "in a manner appropriate to our national culture, moral values and customs." Authorities in Diyarbakir annulled registration of 600 children's Kurdish names.

The Kurds are familiar with repression and betrayal. "They've been gassed, massacred, exiled," said Ergil, the political scientist. Twice in the past 28 years, he pointed out, the Kurds were betrayed by the United States, which reneged on assurances of support for Kurdish independence to pursue grander geopolitical goals.

To win Turkish support for basing 62,000 American soldiers on Turkish soil a few weeks ago, Washington agreed to let 40,000 more Turkish troops move into northern Iraq. That deal fell apart because the Turkish parliament rejected it. The Kurds are disappointed that any Turks are moving in. "But now the Kurds have no choice but to depend on the United States, which seems to be more serious than ever," Ergil said.

Some analysts here believe the United States would have a hard time directing the Kurds in battle in northern Iraq. "Kurds are good, perhaps, at fighting for their own cause, but when it comes to wider political aims which require vision, leadership, discipline and perseverance in diplomatic terms, they may be a liability," Ergil said.

For now, Iraq's Kurds face a perilous moment of truth. Turkey's Kurds, too, seem to be holding their breath, hoping that years of repression will soon come to an end.

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