Too Much Understanding

HAVING spent $8 billion last year on a war against Kurds in southeast Turkey, the Turkish military is attempting to stamp out the Kurds once and for all -- by attacking rebel bases in Iraq.

Kurdish rebels hoping to form a separatist ''Kurdistan'' state through violence are a problem. But a Turkish government that refuses to acknowlege the level and degree of repression it has practiced against the Kurds for years is a problem. The Kurds are the most dispossessed and ignored people on the planet. They have few rights in Turkey; last year eight Kurdish members of parliament were arrested and 70 Kurdish politicians assassinated.

This latest Turkish incursion is extremely messy. The irony of attacks on Kurds under United Nations protection against the villainous Saddam Hussein should be lost on no one. Good-faith assurances by the Ciller government that the all-out assault will target only rebels may be taken with a boulder-sized grain of salt. Prime Minister Tansu Ciller is probably not even calling the shots.

If the incursion is so neat, why not let in the press? Perhaps the example of Russian and Western reporters detailing the horror and abuse in Grozny was not an act Ankara wanted repeated.

Actually, this latest ''decisive'' step by the Turks follows an escalating series of such attacks since the fall of 1992, when the Army launched a war against Kurds. According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, 874 Kurdish villages were torched, and 1 million Kurds ''cleansed.'' But it is hard to be sure; the press was not allowed in.

The White House response to this latest brutal attack is to say that it is ''understanding.'' We checked that statement, by Spokesman Michael McCurry, in several places. Yes, he said it. These statements seem inadequate. Moscow attacks Chechens and the United States ''understands.'' Israel bombs and kills civilians in southern Lebanon and the US seems to approve. Now this. To say, as the White House essentially did, to keep the killing down seems cheap.

Does the White House also ''understand'' if Turkish forces use Lockheed F-16s to drop US-made cluster bombs recently sold to this NATO ally? Human Rights Watch details such action against Kurds.

Turkey may say it is defending its borders by attacking rebels, but the problem runs far deeper: How to bring multiethnic rights and reforms inside Turkey.

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