Turkey's Kurdish rebels face uncertainty

Once championing an independent Turkish Kurdistan, the PKK now settles for cultural rights and local administration

A photo of David Beckham hangs on the wall above the sink where Comrade Yado is doing the dishes. "Football's true gentleman," he says, shoveling lunch leftovers into a bin. "If you get a chance, tell him and his wife we'd love to have them to stay. We're all big fans."

It's an incongruous thought: A multimillionaire soccer player and a former pop star bedding down in the Qandil mountains that prop up the northern end of Iraq's border with Iran. But at the headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, incongruity is the name of the game.

Like Ankara, many governments see Comrade Yado and his friends as terrorists, responsible for a brutal war in Turkey which killed 35,000 people, mostly Turkish Kurds, between 1984 and 1999. Yet, for a sizable minority of Turkey's Kurds, and probably a larger proportion of Europe's Kurdish diaspora, they are champions of the people's rights.

The militants themselves, less than 5,000 according to their leaders, no longer seem entirely sure what they are. By 1990, they controlled vast expanses of southeast Turkey. Now, they are confined to a hundred-odd square miles of pasture and crag at their camp in Iraq. "Even our own countrymen don't accept us," complains one veteran, after hostile questioning at an Iraqi Kurdish roadblock near the camp.

"I have been fighting since I was 18, and will fight until I'm 80 if I have to," says 35-year-old camp commander Comrade Cudi. In fact, he hasn't seen action since 1999, when PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called a unilateral cease-fire after his trial and solitary confinement on an island prison off Istanbul.

Mr. Ocalan's gesture was an attempt to persuade Turkey to allow the PKK into politics. Faced with Ankara's unyielding hostility, his successors have made further concessions. Where the slogan was once independence for Turkish Kurdistan, today's leaders ask only for cultural rights and a strengthened local administration.

"Iraqi federalism would suit us fine, but we have to be realistic," says Zubeyir Aydar, chairman of the PKK's second reincarnation in two years, the Kurdistan People's Congress, or Kongra-Gel.

"The PKK was an extreme-left wing, Turkish Kurdish military organization," says Mr. Aydar, a former Turkish MP who fled to Switzerland in 1994 to avoid imprisonment. "Ours is civilian run, and [we are] determined to find a democratic solution to the Kurdish problem throughout the region."

But it's difficult to say if the ideological about-face has rubbed off on the guerrillas. While many of the more educated display a penchant for dialectic, others, like Comrade Cudi, call themselves humanists.

In the school, several dozen men and women debate the merits of the French and British political systems. The wall behind them is covered with letters to "our beloved president," Abdullah Ocalan.

One party unconvinced by the transformation is Turkey, adamant that the US must root out the PKK before it relaxes its grip on Iraq this summer. That doesn't surprise Aydar. What did pain him was Washington's decision to brand Kongra-Gel a terrorist organization.

"I personally think we share a lot with the US," he says. "We supported its overthrow of Saddam [Hussein], and plans to spread democracy throughout the region. But if [the US] wants Turkey to play a central role in this transformation, [Turkey] needs to have solved its Kurdish problem."

In the camps scattered around the mountain, guerrillas whisper that Baghdad may offer them asylum if they lay down their arms. But they react with equanimity to widespread rumors that a US-led assault is due in May.

There could yet be an alternative to confrontation, though. Since late February, the Kurdish media have talked of a deepening split in the PKK high command, culminating in the expulsion of three veterans, one of them Osman Ocalan, Kongra-Gel deputy chairman and Abdullah's brother.

"[They] aimed to destroy our organization," Duran Kalkan, PKK's senior military commander, told the Kurdish Mesopotamia News Agency March 9.

Zubeyir Aydar is more moderate. "For a long time they had not been working efficiently," he says, "so we removed them from their functions." He laughs off talk of a power struggle between hawks and doves. Others do not.

"The party has reached a critical juncture," says one member. "Eighty percent of younger members want change speeded up. These resignations were a coup by older leaders unwilling to give up power and the leftist, anti-imperialist ideology they were brought up with."

"In a sense they have a point," the member adds. "Without ideology the organization will fold, and yet the time has come to change it. It is quite possible little will be left of the PKK in six months' time."

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