A Little Mideast War Tests Turkey

BY most standards, a war broke out in the Middle East this week.

But it was largely out of view, and because it was launched by a NATO member and a budding European Union partner, few leaders in the West were very much bothered by it.

Rather, the most intense debate was in Turkey itself. Leaders here are debating how long 35,000 Turkish troops, dispatched to northern Iraq on Monday, should continue to fight a terrorist group and destroy its home bases near civilian centers.

Prime Minister Tansu Ciller vows Turkey will finish off the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), a Marxist-oriented militant group seeking a Kurd homeland, before considering any political settlement to the decade-long problem. But she has not spelled out what a political settlement might entail.

The invasion in Iraq began after PKK guerrillas killed 18 Turkish soldiers last weekend. Combined air and ground forces pushed 25 miles into Iraq attacking PKK camps used to stage assaults on Turkey. Turkey claims 200 of the estimated 2,500 PKK rebels have been killed, and 13 Turkish soldiers have died so far.

Human rights and refugee groups criticized Turkey for possibly hitting Kurdish refugees in the area. ''The vast majority of Kurdish refugees from Turkey [4,500] in those areas are women and children,'' says Ruth Marshall, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.

''The Turkish government has given us assurances no civilians will be harmed, but that's a very difficult distinction to make,'' Ms. Marshall says. ''We've had local [Kurdish] officials and international charities report to us quite strong allegations that the Turkish military has been taking people back over the border. We have no idea if those people are rebels or are civilian refugees.''

PKK guerrillas have waged a 10-year-long war on Turkey's government for a separate Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey. Nearly 15,000 have been killed so far, government officials say.

Homeless Kurds

The Kurdish people are spread over Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, having missed out on getting their own homeland after the Ottoman Empire was carved up after World War I. Turkey is home to about 12 million Kurds -- one-fifth of its total population. Since the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, it has attempted to assimilate its Kurdish population.

The Kurds in Turkey are considered to have equal rights. But their separate identity is denied. Kurdish remains their spoken language, but its use in schools and the media is forbidden.

And public discussion of these issues is forbidden. In December, eight Kurdish members of parliament were imprisoned for speaking out on behalf of Kurds.

The Ciller government has promised reforms that would make free discussion of the Kurdish issue legal, but no such legislation has been enacted.

Monday's Turkish advance on PKK bases was inside the United Nations zone set up in 1991 to protect Iraqi Kurds from President Saddam Hussein after the Gulf war. The area -- 120 miles wide and 25 miles deep -- is patrolled by United States, British, and French air forces.

In 1992 Turkey launched an operation inside northern Iraq to destroy PKK camps there. Turkey then negotiated a deal with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, who agreed to prevent the PKK from operating on their territory. In return, Turkey agreed to support them economically.

But earlier this year, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership split and became involved in their own internal struggle. The split provided a safe place for the PKK to launch attacks, Turkish officials say. Some Turkish politicians and Western diplomats say this week's attack is also retaliation against Iraqi Kurds for breaking their agreement.

Both sides abuse

In the past, Turkey's forces have in some cases been brutal in their fight against the PKK. They have bulldozed villages suspected of hiding PKK members. Indiscriminate or unjust arrests have been made, and torture has been applied during interrogations.

''The thing about this operation,'' says Jeri Laber, senior adviser to New York-based Human Rights Watch, ''is the military assumes that any Kurd living in southeastern Turkey is by definition a supporter of the PKK.''

But she goes on to say the PKK is equally guilty for perpetrating abuses. ''This is not a good-guy, bad-guy situation. The good guys are the Kurdish civilians who are caught in the middle between PKK abuses and the crackdown by the Turkish military.''

About 200,000 government troops are normally deployed in southeastern Turkey, and the government spends about $7 billion annually (which is equal to one-third of its export-derived income) fighting the PKK insurgency, with little success.

''In the past, we have conducted some operations against PKK camps,'' says Defense Minister Mehmet Golhan. ''But a month or two later, the terrorists were back. This time ... the operation is much larger. And this will probably last longer.''

The government faces pressures from two camps on where the operations goes from here.

Many military strategists and politicians want a continued military presence in Iraq until the PKK is neutralized. Others, such as the government's coalition partner Republican People's Party (CHP) and the main opposition Motherland Party, say Turkey's interests will be better served by a quick withdrawal.

Bulent Ecevit, former prime minister and now leader of the opposition Democratic Left Party, urged the government to keep the troops in Iraq. ''This is an opportunity that should not be wasted,'' he said. ''If our troops are pulled back immediately, the PKK will re-establish their bases there. It is better that they stay to control the area, until Iraq's territorial integrity is fully restored.''

But Hikmet Cetin, leader of the CHP, has warned that if forces are not pulled back quickly, Turkey's relations with the EU and allies will suffer.

Foreign ministers from France, Germany, and Spain arrived in the capital Ankara yesterday for the first official contact between the EU and Turkey since the signing of the customs-union agreement earlier this month. They voiced their disapproval of the Turkish action.

''The Turkish armed forces must withdraw from northern Iraq,'' German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said yesterday.

''If it stays in the region for a long time, the approval of the European Parliament for the customs union will become more difficult,'' he added.

The EU has already pressured Turkey to improve its human rights record and fully democratize its government. And the customs-union agreement still needs a stamp of approval from the European Parliament.

Scope of operation

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said President Clinton urged Ms. Ciller that ''the scope and duration of the operation be as limited as possible.''

''We are aware of the world's sensitivity,'' a Ciller aide says. ''But the world also must understand that the source of terrorism in northern Iraq has to be eradicated. This time we shall carry on till the end.''

Ciller has repeatedly said that ''a non-military solution'' -- as advocated by the Western allies -- cannot be considered before ''terrorism is completely crushed.''

Offers for a cease-fire and dialogue made by PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan -- who lives in exile in Syria -- have always been flatly rejected. The view of the present and past governments has been that ''you do not negotiate with criminals.''

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