Turkey's Kurds losing patience with Bush as Iraq war nears

They want U.S. to back independence but fear being caught up in fight

Dead For Hussein

March 18, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CIZRE, Turkey - Here in the land of Noah, where the rich plains of Mesopotamia begin, people are upset with President Bush, as are people throughout the region. The difference here is that Kurds who live in this remote corner of Turkey take the long view of history and the world: They think of the president as family.

Never mind that Bush, the descendant of American blue bloods, considers himself a Texan. People here say that the American president - like everyone else - can trace his lineage to these lands near the point where the borders of Turkey, Syria and Iraq meet. And they worry that he is about to bring serious trouble upon them.

All of the people living in the world are from here, the Kurds say, because after the flood, everyone came from here. The flood they refer to so intimately, of course, was the one where it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. After that global catastrophe, according to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, the only survivors were Noah and his family, who had built an ark to serve as a lifeboat for all the Earth's creatures.

If Bush is related to the Kurds, he is trying the patience of many of his distant cousins here. As a result of the White House's apparent determination to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with force, the residents of this area could end up embroiled in a deadly scramble for power, land and oil in the coming days.

About 20 million Kurds live in a mountainous area, parts of which are controlled by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They have been called the world's largest nation without a country and have long been persecuted by the governments that rule them.

Separatist guerrillas

Many of Turkey's Kurds oppose a war because they are weary of warfare: For most of the past two decades, Kurdish separatist guerrillas have fought Turkish troops in this region. Turkish soldiers man checkpoints and patrol streets in the region.

At the same time, many Kurds here want Bush to support Kurdish aspirations for an independent state in northern Iraq. Kurdish groups across the border control and administer a portion of northern Iraq protected by one of the no-fly zones set up by the United States and its allies after the first gulf war.

Without an independent Kurdish state, one Kurd asked, "who will defend us?"

But the Turkish government opposes the idea, saying it could reignite separatist passions among Turkey's Kurds. Instead, political leaders in Ankara, Turkey's capital, say they want to move into northern Iraq to create a "buffer zone" to prevent Kurdish guerrilla attacks.

The Iraqi Kurds, meanwhile, have threatened to battle any Turkish troops who enter their territory. They suspect that Turkey's real aim is to grab Iraq's rich oil fields in Mosul and Kirkuk.

Angry with America

On Sunday, Kurdish groups staged a rally in Silopi marking the 15th anniversary of one of Saddam Hussein's most notorious war crimes: the use of chemical weapons to kill 5,000 Kurds in the northern Iraqi town of Halabja in March 1988.

Yet the United States was bitterly criticized at the rally. Many Kurds blame the United States and Europe for letting Halabja happen. And they say Western corporations sold the Iraqi dictator the technical means to make the weapon in the first place.

"The United Nations and the United States closed their eyes to these crimes," a leader of the Kurdish Democratic Social Party told the crowd, under the watchful eyes of scores of police. "All the world, even the United Nations, was silent."

Another Kurdish man in Silopi, speaking privately, muttered his agreement. "Are you deaf, Europeans and Americans?" he said. "In five seconds, 5,000 people died. Where were you?"

Although the Kurds of this region are threatened with violence, many are also afflicted by poverty.

During most of the 1980s and 1990s, clashes between government and guerrilla forces drove thousands of Kurdish villagers into cities. Many spent their savings, sold their valuables and bought trucks to haul goods across Iraq's wide-open border.

But after Sept. 11, the Turkish government shut the border to most of the trade because of security concerns. Thousands of truck drivers were thrown out of work.

Today, their rusting trucks are parked in fields and alleyways all along the road to the border. Controls have become even tighter in recent months, apparently shutting off all but a trickle of traffic.

Some here hoped that a war against Baghdad would create a windfall for the region. The Pentagon had asked permission to send the 4th Infantry Division through the land of Noah into northern Iraq, opening a second front. In exchange, the White House was prepared to give Turkey grants and loans of about $15 billion.

But Turkey's parliament, faced with overwhelming public hostility to the war, balked and rejected the deal. (United States military planners still hope to base special forces here and use Turkish airspace for overflights.)

Noah and the flood

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