Might Makes Flight in Two Rebel Wars
Turkey's military fails to find many PKK Kurd rebels
BANIK, IRAQ — ALONG the winding dirt road that threads its way through narrow mountain passes here, the Turkish Army has placed mammoth US-made M-60 tanks at strategic intervals. Soldiers trained to fight in the open eye the hills surrounding them nervously, waiting in vain for phantom guerrillas like so many frustrated conventional armies before them.
A few miles away, scattered on a rocky hillside beneath an abandoned discotheque used as a gun emplacement by United States troops here in 1991 in the aftermath of the Gulf war, 80 people from the village of Kasan are setting up a ramshackle tent city on a rocky hillside. The villagers fled their homes last Friday night, they say, after two unprovoked Turkish artillery attacks left three dead.
''I don't know what [the Turks] think they can accomplish with this operation,'' says a Western official based in Northern Iraq. ''What they're really doing is hitting a fly with a sledgehammer.''
Thirteen days into Turkey's military incursion against a Kurdish guerrilla group partially based in Northern Iraq, a 35,000- man military force that appears to be trying desperately to do everything right is seeing everything go wrong.
By using massive military force, Western officials here warn, the Turkish government is creating a political and military quagmire for itself that will cause more problems than it will solve in troubled Northern Iraq.
Only 271 of an estimated 2,800 Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) guerrillas have been killed in the massive air, armor, and infantry assault, and some Western media reports appear to have exaggerated the number of atrocities carried out by Turkish forces so far.
Western officials here condemn the operation, but express surprise over how the Turkish military -- which has long been criticized for committing atrocities against the Kurds -- has conducted itself. ''The whole thing is wrong,'' says Christopher Lee, deputy mission director for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Iraq. ''But considering the number of troops ... there have been very, very few casualties. They've exercised a lot of restraint.''
At least three villages report being attacked, and two civilians have been killed and eight wounded, according to Kurdish and Western officials. Turkish soldiers have rounded up the residents of several villages, demanded identity cards, and searched homes, but apparently no mass abductions have occurred.
Some Kurds even expressed relief that the Turkish Army has arrived in the area. The PKK, a Marxist guerrilla movement fighting for a Kurdish homeland for the last eight years, had been recently setting up road blocks and demanding ''tolls'' at gun- point, they say.
But bitter villagers from Kasan say they were the victims of two unprovoked attacks on March 30 and 31. Turkish military officials have blocked access to the abandoned mountain-village area, saying PKK guerrillas are active there.
Seated in a cloth tent in the temporary camp with a dozen others from Kasan, village leader Mahmoud Osman Mahmoud recounts the attacks. The Turkish officer ''promised us there would be no harm done,'' he says as he slowly spools a chain of Muslim prayer beads through his fingers. Outside, women wash clothes in a stream, young men set up tents, and roosters and donkeys crow and bray.
Thirty minutes later, ''15 rounds of artillery were fired into the village. They continued firing'' for 24 hours, he adds.
A Turkish officer blames the incident on PKK guerrillas. He and other soldiers say one Turkish soldier was killed and two wounded when their forces were fired on at night by PKK guerrillas in or near the village. The officer says he was becoming increasingly frustrated with the operation. ''The PKK shoots at us from the village so that we shoot at the village,'' he says. ''Who is a villager and who is a PKK soldier? We don't know.... We can't do anything.''
Turkish Brig. Gen. Hussein Erim, a top commander in the operation, seems to agree. General Erim says that eradicating all PKK guerrillas from the area is impossible. ''Terrorists, you don't know where they are,'' he says. ''As long as you're here, you have to keep searching. It never ends.''
Western aid workers fear that frustration in the Turkish military could lead to more atrocities and a massive increase in villagers fleeing their homes. An estimated 3,500 Kurds have already fled their villages as a result of the operation.
''All the Turks have to do is rattle their saber,'' says one aid worker, ''and we'll have a real mess on our hands.'' Western officials warn the operation will not solve the long-term problems in the area, which include inter-Kurdish fighting and 80 percent unemployment.
The United States and its allies established a no-fly zone in Northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war to protect Iraqi Kurds from Saddam Hussein. But fighting between the two main Iraqi Kurd leaders -- Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani -- has created a power vacuum in the area that has allowed the PKK to move in and launch attacks that have destabilized neighboring Turkey.
Turkey's Erim, who Turkish newspapers recently compared to US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, agrees there is nothing to keep PKK guerrillas from returning to the area after his forces withdraw.
He says control of key mountain passes by Turkish forces or some kind of international body -- such as the UN -- is needed to keep the PKK from launching raids into Turkey from Northern Iraq again.
But Western officials in northern Iraq and Ankara, the Turkish capital, say the chances for an international force are close to none. They predict the $1billion operation will soon force the cash-strapped Turkish government to withdraw its forces from Northern Iraq.
The expectation of many Kurds -- who fervently support the ongoing Western-enforced no-fly zone -- is that the US will return. ''America rules the whole world,'' says Adil Rasheed Zubeir, a Kasan resident who says Turkish soldiers fired on his car when he tried to complain to the authorities. ''Why can't it rule the Kurds too?''