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Amid war drums, Turkey's Kurds fear loss of rights

Democratic gains in southeastern Turkey may be sacrificed if Ankara goes after rebels in Iraq.

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 2007



Yuksekova, Turkey

The 100,000 Turkish troops massing near the border with Iraq is a palpable presence here in the predominantly Kurdish towns of southeastern Turkey.

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Heard above the shouts of children playing on the streets in this small city of Yuksekova are the thump-thump of military helicopters shuttling troops and supplies. Periodically, armored vehicles merge with the honking cars and trucks.

On Sunday, Turkish soldiers killed 20 Kurdish guerrillas in a major military operation against separatist rebels about 400 miles northwest of here, Army sources told Reuters.

Residents in Yuksekova are sympathetic to the rebel aims of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) but are tired of the fighting. They worry that recent political gains will be lost. In the July parliamentary election, most voters here put their weight behind a mainstream political party – the ruling Law and Justice Party (AKP). In recent years, the PKK has been losing clout, but some analysts worry the current march toward war could revive local support for the rebels.

"I am 30 years old and this current government is the most democratic government that I have seen," Ismail Arslan, a Yuksekova radio journalist. "But I don't think the government can continue in its democratic ways in the current situation."

In response to stepped-up attacks from the PKK across the nearby Iraq border, public support for a tough, military response is building in Turkey. As part of this fight with the PKK, some analysts expect Turkish troops will restrict the rights and movement of locals, and begin arresting residents who are perceived as PKK supporters.

"If the local population sees democratic reforms being rolled back [here], they could fall back into supporting the PKK and following a more radical line," says Volkan Aytar, a researcher at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, an Istanbul-based think tank.

Clearly, the renewed PKK attacks – particularly the Oct. 21 ambush that killed 12 Turkish soldiers – have also exposed a deep fault line running through Turkish society, one that is being watched with increasing concern in the southeast.

That attack in the nearby mountain village of Daglica led to protests across Turkey, with thousands of flag-waving marchers calling for Turkey to take action against the PKK. More disturbingly to residents here, offices of the pro-Kurdish Democratic People's Party (DTP), which currently has 19 of its members in parliament, were attacked by mobs in several cities.

"While we are looking for terrorists in the Kandil Mountains [of northern Iraq] we should not forget that the supporters of terrorists are ... even in the corridors of the parliament," Devlet Bahceli, leader of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), said at a recent party meeting, referring to the DTP.

Mr. Aytar warns that "the real danger is... an increasing securitization of the Turkish political discourse, which is threatening democratization."

Kurds, most of whom maintain a strong ethnic identity even if they don't support the PKK's goal of a Kurdish state on Turkish soil, are already feeling alienated by anti-PKK rhetoric and protests taking place across the country.

Turkey is pushing the US and Iraq to clamp down on the PKK. Some 3,000 fighters are using Iraq as a base for carrying out attacks in Turkey. On Sunday, US Gen. David Petraeus said, "I am not going to say anything about what we may be doing with our long-standing NATO allies Turkey, although we clearly are doing things with them. Nor will I say what we are doing with our Iraqi partners to endeavor to stabilize the situation and to ensure that the sides are talking and taking actions to reduce the tension."

It's not difficult to picture a scenario where local support returns to the PKK in a place like Yuksekova, where almost everyone knows a PKK fighter who has been killed or who is currently up in the mountains of northern Iraq.

"If you knock on any door here, you find someone who has lost a loved one," says Yuksekova mayor Mehmet Salih Yildiz, a member of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP).

"The pain is deep, but still there's a hope for peace," says the mayor, whose two sons were killed fighting with the PKK.

Aliza Marcus, a former Reuters correspondent in Turkey and author of the recently published "Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence," says these deep ties have left the rebel group with a strong reserve of sympathy and respect in the region.

"Certainly the PKK is not as popular as it was in the 1990s. But still it is very strong and it's able to direct the Kurdish political debate in Turkey," she says.

Halit Tekci, an older gentleman sitting at a sidewalk café in Yuksekova, says, "What will ruin Turkey are these protests [in the cities calling for war against the PKK]. "These protests only increase hatred against the Kurds and will lead to a Turkish-Kurdish conflict." .

Mayor Yildiz says he hopes that the normalcy that his city has been able to regain will hold, despite the drums of war that are beating throughout Turkey. "If there is an incursion ...our democratic rights will be lost," he says. "People are sick and tired of this conflict. They hate it."

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