Turks in Iraq

March 23, 1995

There is a crucial difference between trained terrorists and innocent refugees. Terrorists will vanish before a cumbersome military strike. Refugees will wait to be hit.

The argument that Turkey was entitled to hurl 35,000 soldiers at terrorist camps maintained by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Iraq misses that point. The raid was modeled on Israel's strikes at terrorist bases in Lebanon. But Turkey was seen to mobilize on the border. The incursion was no surprise. PKK propaganda holds that most of its guerrillas infiltrated back into Turkey before the blow struck. Many probably did.

United States and United Nations denial of Iraq's right to persecute Kurds in north Iraq has created a no-man's land where Kurds exercise cultural rights, but where two rival Iraqi Kurd movements struggle. Iran and Turkey have raided there against their own insurgents operating from sanctuary. Turkey's raid this week is only the most recent and most massive.

Kurds make up a fifth or more of Turkey's 60 million people. Modern, secular Turkey long denied them cultural identity. The PKK is a separatist, terrorist, Marxist, 10-year insurgency where democratic protest was denied. Most Turkish Kurds are not PKK. Enduring long Turkish suppression and demolition of their villages in the southeast, millions fled to the shantytowns ringing Ankara and Istanbul. There, many vote for the Welfare Party, an Islamic fundamentalist party, appealing to them as Turks and not as Kurds, that may overthrow Turkey's democracy by democratic means.

The United States has forgiven Turkey much because it was a NATO bulwark against the Soviet Union. Now it is a bulwark against anti-Western extremism posing as Islamic fundamentalism. Turkey allowed U.S. forces to operate from its bases against Iraq. It competes with Iran for influence in former Soviet republics of Central Asia. It has the most resilient democracy of the Islamic world, despite periods of military rule.

But Turkey is also the target of Iran-style extremism. Its democracy has given the Welfare Party control of Ankara and Istanbul with a goal of overturning the secularism imposed by the nation's great revolutionary, Kemal Ataturk, in the 1920s. The integrity of Turkey is important to U.S. interests when Washington contemplates Syria, Iraq and Iran.

So it is easy to sympathize with President Clinton's acceptance of the invasion. Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller says, "We are determined that, in this final operation, the job will definitely be done." Not likely. More tolerance of Kurdish publishing, Kurdish broadcasting, Kurdish education and Kurdish political identity in Turkey would make Ankara's military campaign easier to justify.

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