Kurds, divided, face new future

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan will meet with President Bush Wednesday; Iraq's Kurds will be on the agenda.

"Iraq's future can't be entrusted to Iraqi Kurds - they're just a bunch of backward tribes."

Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani "couldn't tell a democratic system from the back of a cow - all he's interested in is dollars from Washington."

Off-the-cuff remarks from incautious Turkish officials?

No. The men speaking, Abdulaziz and Seyhmus, are members of Turkey's 15-million-strong Kurdish minority. Unemployed, they spend most of their time at this cafe in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir. Like most of the people here, they are farmers the Turkish Army expelled from their villages during its 15-year war with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Yet, while they understandably have little affection for Ankara, the depth of their contempt for their ethnic brothers beyond the border 100 miles to the south would surprise anyone who assumed a natural bond between Turkish and Iraqi Kurds.

Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan is visiting the White House Wednesday, in part to dissuade President Bush from giving too much autonomy to the Kurdish parties running northern Iraq. Ankara claims that if other states give their Kurds an inch, Turkey's own much larger minority will try to take a mile. But the antipathy between Turkish and Iraqi Kurds calls into question the basis of Ankara's continued opposition to Iraqi Kurdish calls for a federal Iraq.

The reasons for the lack of solidarity between Turkish and Iraqi Kurds are numerous. They have been divided by borders for over 80 years. Most Iraqi Kurds speak a dialect incomprehensible to the Kirmanci-speakers in Turkey's southeast.

Above all, though, Turkish Kurdish perceptions of Iraqi Kurds have been clouded by memories of their own nationalist struggle. As Mahmud, sitting next to Abdulaziz in the cafe, puts it: "We have no faith in [Iraqi Kurdish leaders] Talabani and Barzani - the Kurds' only real hope is in prison in Imrali."

He's referring to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, in solitary confinement since 1999 on an island off Istanbul, and largely remembered as a violent advocate of Kurdish separatism. An ex- Marxist, he targeted not just the Turkish authorities, but also local tribal leaders he considered responsible for southeastern Turkey's poverty.

In the eyes of many Turkish Kurds still sympathetic to Mr. Ocalan, Massoud Barzani, son of a charismatic tribal leader, symbolizes the feudal, tribal structures they would like to see eradicated from Kurdish society.

The distaste is mutual. PKK fighters have been based in northern Iraq since the early 1990s, unwelcome guests of the Kurdish authorities there. Angered by PKK demands on their civilians, and pressured by Turkey, Iraqi Kurdish leaders collaborated several times with Ankara's attempts to flush the PKK out of its Iraqi mountain bases.

But the PKK is now weak and isolated, with an estimated 4,000 fighters holed up in camps 150 miles south of Turkey on the Iran-Iraq border. That it manages to maintain its hold on so many Turkish Kurds is due, in large part, to the innumerable satellite dishes clustered on roofs throughout the region.

Eighteen months since Ankara passed laws permitting limited radio and television broadcasts in minority languages like Kurdish, Turkish television is still exclusively in Turkish. Most Kurds couldn't care less. Since 1994, anybody with the $150 necessary to buy a satellite dish and decoder has been able to watch Kurdish TV 24 hours a day, beamed in from Europe. "I sold one of my three cows to buy the equipment," says Sabri Hatipoglu, a villager in the north of Diyarbakir province. "It's the only channel that deals with issues relevant to me and my people."

"Like its predecessor Med-TV, [Kurdish TV channel] Medya is the mouthpiece of the PKK," says Celal Baslangic, an expert on Kurdish issues for the liberal daily Radikal. "Most people only watch it because there is nothing else on."

"I wouldn't be surprised if Medya was working with Ankara," says Bayram Bozyel, the Diyarbakir representative of a small Kurdish party that has always strongly criticized the PKK's left-wing ideologues, half-joking: "By presenting Kurds in Iraq as the enemy, people not supporting the PKK as the enemy, Medya has done an excellent job dividing the Kurdish people."

Across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan, Garwent Akray agrees. Head of Kurdistan TV - affiliated with Barzani's party - since its launch in 1999, he admits that part of the reason his satellite channel was set up was "to give audiences here an alternative to Medya's negative coverage of Iraqi Kurdish leaders."

"Medya indoctrination is stronger the further you get from the Iraqi border," adds Kendal Nezan, president of the Kurdish Institute in Paris. "Down in the frontier region, families overlap the border, and years of close economic links have brought the two sides together."

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