As U.S. advances, Kurds' fears eased

Conflict: The success of American forces is changing sentiment in southeastern Turkey.

War In Iraq

March 22, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SILOPI, Turkey - Here at the Driver's Tea House along the road to Iraq, a television blared out the news of the American advance in Iraq yesterday, and each wave of tanks appeared to reassure a people uneasy about this war.

Perhaps 12 million Kurds live here in southeastern Turkey, and many opposed this military action, which would hold such unpredictable consequences for them. They feared that if the United States attacked Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator would use chemical weapons against the Kurds of northern Iraq. He has done it before.

But, as the tea house's television showed American military vehicles churning through the desert toward Baghdad, it appeared the Iraqi military would be too busy bracing for the onslaught of American troops to worry about the Kurds. Support for the conflict grew by the hour.

"If the United States proceeds step by step, and not brutally, then everything could be changing," said Ethem Alav, 30, the brother of the tea shop's owner. "Before a few days ago, people felt very anxious. But now they are calm."

Tea is served in tulip-shaped glasses called bardoks, set on little stainless-steel saucers along with three cubes of sugar.

Many patrons puff away at Monte Carlo cigarettes as they play a form of backgammon or a card game called papaz. Either way, they slam tiles and cards on blanket-covered tables with loud thwacks. Shouting, laughter and gossip fill the air.

"I don't know whether it's true or not," one customer said," but I heard that many Iraqi soldiers surrendered."

"If they give up, it will be better," replied another.

By late morning, the video of advancing soldiers was old news. But a crowd gathered around the television when a report showed a Kurdish mother from northern Iraq putting her boy into a clear plastic bag, demonstrating how she planned to protect him from chemical attack.

Many Kurds here are upset with the Turkish government for not providing them with gas masks or other protective gear.

Along with support for the war, there seemed to be growing regret here that Turkey's government did not grant the United States the right to send 62,000 troops through Turkey to open a northern front against Baghdad.

"We would have liked to have American troops come through here," said one man. "They would feel very safe with us."

Several tea house patrons fondly recalled the aftermath of the first gulf war in 1991, when foreign troops were stationed in the area and almost everyone seemed to be working.

"Will the Americans come?" one man asked anxiously.

He seemed disappointed to hear that the Turkish government had finally decided, just yesterday, that it would only grant permission for over-flights by United States and coalition aircraft. The negotiations had dragged into early morning, with the Turkish government in Ankara demanding advance notice of the details of each mission, which the United States refused to do.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Turkey cracked down on violations of the international embargo on Iraq, halting much of the illegal flow of oil and other goods across the border just south of here. Tens of thousands of truck drivers living in Turkey were thrown out of work. Their trucks litter the fields, roadsides and alleys along the road north.

Drivers say that trucks they bought for $10,000 a few years ago are worth little or nothing. Meanwhile, they're expected to pay $1,300 annually in vehicle taxes on the hulks.

"All of the people who could afford to have left," said the tea shop's owner, Resit Alav, 38, who once drove a truck himself. "There are no jobs. The men who come to this place? They come to drink tea and play cards, until they die."

If the United States defeats Baghdad, of course, the border could open to traffic once again. "Everybody prays for that," said Ethem, Resit's anxious younger brother. "Now, there is not even a crust of bread to eat."

A few drivers continued to work, at least until a few days ago. Sadik Ozger, 39, just arrived Wednesday from Baghdad, where he had delivered a load of steel from Istanbul under the United Nations-sanctioned trade program.

Ozger said many Iraqis were following the advice of the Americans and not venturing out of their homes.

"They don't want anyone to think they are trying to resist American troops," he said. The Iraqi military, meanwhile, had driven truck-mounted rocket launchers into covered trenches - with the missiles pointed at Israel.

The military, he said, had also dug long trenches on both sides of some roadways north of Baghdad, and filled them with crude oil - perhaps planning to light them in the event coalition soldiers attempt to use the roadways.

As Ozger crossed the no man's land into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, he said, an Iraqi military officer extorted $200 from him. Another cousin was stopped at the border and his vehicle impounded. No one has heard from him in nine days, including his wife. "She was crying last night," Ozger said.

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