Turks Talk to Iraqi Kurdish Rebels

Secret dialogue is change that provokes furious debate after years of ignoring Kurds at home

THE revelation Monday that the Turkish government held secret talks with Iraq's Kurdish opposition leaders has surprised many and provoked heated controversy here. President Turgut Ozal's decision to begin the dialogue also marks a major shift in Turkey's policy, analysts say.

``It's as if the Israelis were starting talks with the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization],'' says a Western diplomat.

The first such contact was March 8 in Ankara, Turkey, between four senior Turkish officials and a Kurdish delegation which included Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and an aide to Masoud Barzani, head of the Democratic Kurdish Party (DKP).

The Kurdish leaders, whose forces are fighting Saddam Hussein's Army in northern Iraq and already control part of that territory, were invited to the Turkish capital after intense indirect contacts by Mr. Ozal. The Turkish leader disclosed the secret talks to reporters during his flight to Moscow Monday.

Turkish political circles were surprised by the disclosures, because Turkey has in the past suppressed Kurdish nationalists and their organizations in Turkey. While government circles and Ozal's supporters say the dramatic policy shift will benefit Turkey, critics find it dangerous.

``We have no interest whatsoever to interfere in Iraq's domestic affairs,'' says Erdal Inonu, Social Democratic Party chairman. ``Ozal is playing dangerous game again.''

The Turks have been very cautious concerning Kurdish desires for autonomy because about 12 million ethnic Kurds - one-fifth of Turkey's population - live here. Only recently did Ozal's administration grant local Kurds permission to use their language and to practice their culture.

When revealing the meeting, Ozal said that events in northern Iraq were of primary concern to Turkey.

``There is nothing to be afraid of talking,'' he said. ``We must be friends with them. If we become enemies, others can use them against us.''

A belief that Kurdish rebels will win in Iraq and control the northern part of the country near Turkey prompted the administration to begin dialogue, sources close to the president say. If this takeover occurred, the Kurds might then unilaterally declare independence, something Ozal and many Turks oppose.

Ozal has repeatedly warned that ``Turkey would feel compelled to intervene'' if a Kurdish state were to be established in northern Iraq. Turkish officials also say that the preservation of Iraq's territorial integrity, even after Saddam's downfall, is essential.

The talks with Kurdish opposition leaders seem designed to ensure that the Kurds will not attempt to secede from Iraq and set up an independent state. Foreign Ministry spokesman Murat Sungar said Wednesday that the Kurds told the Turks they had no such intention.

Another Turkish motive for talks was to discuss Iraq's future political status. Mr. Sungar confirmed that Kurdish leaders were given assurances that Turkey ``would not object to the idea of a federation'' with self-government for the Kurds. He said, however, that Iraq's unitary character should be maintained.

Mr. Talabani, the Kurdish rebel leader, told Turkey's leading daily newspaper Milliyet that he was happy Turkey had recognized the Kurds' right for a federation. ``This is opening a new page in the relations between the Kurds and Turkey,'' he said.

The Ozal administration may also have changed policy because of its tighter relationship with the United States and Britain since the Gulf war. Speculation has centered on the possibility that the Western allies and Turkey might support the Kurdish rebellion against Saddam's regime, and a federal system. Talabani was reported to have discussed such plans during visits to Washington and London.

The Ozal administration also expects friendly contacts with Kurdish leaders to lead to a disarming of the Marxist Kurdish terrorist organization PKK, which has been engaged in violence against Turks for years. During the talks, Kurdish leaders reportedly assured Turkey that they oppose the PKK.

But political turmoil has also resulted from the secret talks. The move has split the ruling Motherland Party. Parliamentarians have criticized the policy.

``Ozal has made a historic mistake by holding secret talks with guerrilla leaders,'' says Hasan Guzel, a ruling party leader. ``Such moves can be a serious threat to [Turkish] national unity.''

The policy could backfire, says political scientist Haluk Ulman.

``This will give false and wrong messages to those Kurds inside Turkey,'' he says. ``They too might ask for the same rights [to form] a federation.''

Government officials disagree. Minister of State Kemal Akkaya said Wednesday that ``what we are talking about is an autonomy for the Kurds in Iraq; there is no such question in Turkey.''

But Kurds in Turkey are hardly indifferent to such a change. Reports from Turkey's southeastern provinces, where Kurds are concentrated, suggest many are pleased with the rebels' success in northern Iraq as well as the talks between Turkish and Kurdish leaders.

``The Kurds in northern Iraq want to have friendly ties with Turkey,'' says Kemal Birlik, a parliamentarian of Kurdish origin from that region. ``We are going to be their neighbors, when they will fully control the region. Those people have relatives on this side of the border. We shall be able to establish a common life in the future.''

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