Kurds face deliverance, devastation

War may aid their revival - or revive old conflicts

War In Iraq

March 31, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

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.

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