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Iraqi Kurds play Turkey's game.

Only months ago, Iraqi Kurds had to fight to get a meeting with Congressional aides, but now their leaders are being wined and dined in Washington. A front-page story in The New York Times last month saluted the emergence of a" fledgling Kurdish state" in northern Iraq. At first glance, one might think the long suffering Kurdish people were on the verge of a historic breakthrough. Instead, what we're witnessing is the opening of another round of the geopolitical game that has victimized the Kurds again and again--this time with the help of Kurds themselves.

If in past years the U.S. tilt was first to the Shah's Iran, and then to Saddam Hussein's Iraq against the Ayatollah Khomeini, this time the ball has been passed to Turkey. For years a NATO military outpost, Ankara receives some $625 million annually in U.S. foreign aid, ranking it third behind Israel and Egypt. With the crumbling of the Soviet Union, Turkey has been given a new task as the cornerstone of regional security in the postwar Persian Gulf, in particular as a bulwark against Iran, and as a role model for the Central Asian republics. In this flamework, the rights of the 15 million Kurds in Turkey mean little to the United States and its allies. And Western support for the Kurds of Iraq is, as we shall see, conditioned entirely on how they fit into this larger picture.

In spite of what most Americans believe, Turkey--not Iraq--has victimized Kurds the most in the twentieth century. They were legally stripped of their ethnic identity in 1925, and it wasn't until November 1990 that President Turgut Ozal convinced the Turkish Parliament to lift the ban on public use of the Kurdish language (and then only for "nonpolitical" speech). During last year's exodus of Kurds from Iraq, TV viewers saw them in traditional Kurdish clothes; they heard them speak their language. This isn't the story in Turkey, where everything Kurdish has been a crime for decades.

Turkey's Kurds have been fighting a largely hidden war that has continued to escalate since the Kurds of northern Iraq came under the protection of the allied coalition last year. When Kurds in Turkey were attacked by the Turkish military last spring as they celebrated their New Year, the Bush Administration and the press called for sympathy for the Ankara government. The Washington Post, in a March 29 editorial, described the Turks as subject to a "serious and ugly threat" and warned readers that "any international effort to comfort the Kurds must not swing away from Iraq."

So what is the purpose of the Gulf War coalition's sponsorship of the Kurds in northern Iraq? From this strategic center, far larger numbers of Kurds, in Turkey on the one side and Iran on the other, will be kept in their place. Protected by the allies, the Kurds of Iraq will be the buffer to keep 25 million Kurds divided.

The seeds for this arrangement were planted soon after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when Turkish officials met with representatives of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front to discuss the Kurds' future. At that time President Ozal had in mind a federated Iraq: the north for the Kurds, a slice in the middle for Iraq's Turkmen population and leftovers for the Arabs. The leaders of the front had only to bar Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey from crossing into their territory and to acquiesce in Turkmen territorial rights in the vicinity of Kirkuk, whose oilfields Ankara has long coveted. The Kurds didn't say no.

Then, under cover of the refugee drama in the spring of 1991, coalition leaders effectively redrew the map of Iraqi Kurdistan. First, President Ozal called for a "safe haven" for the Kurds driven to Turkey's border. Next, President Bush set the 36th parallel as Kurdistan's southernmost boundary. Unfortunately for the Kurds, the Kirkuk oilfields--traditionally a part of their land--are farther to the south.

Now the Iraqi Kurdish love affair with Ankara has come into the open, thanks in part to Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. On July 25, after meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel and President Ozal, and on the eve of a trip to Washington with Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (K.D.E), for talks with Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Talabani went so far as to say that rather than remain in an undemocratic Iraq he would prefer "to join a democratic Turkey." At a time when just about every ethnic group is breaking established boundaries looking for independence, Talabani must be the only leader who thinks his people ought to be returned to the progeny of the Ottoman sultans who conquered them.

With the Iraqi Kurdish leadership and the Western media in tow, the Turkish military has been given a free hand to escalate its internal war against the Kurdish guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers' Party (P.K.K.). More than 1,400 have been killed in the past nine months. Cross-border attacks managed to kill some P.K.K. fighters; they also killed Iraqi Kurds in border villages. But Iraqi Kurdish leaders, with their offices now in Ankara, are hardly in a position to protest. As the K.D.P.'s spokesperson Hoshyar Zibari admitted to me last June, "Turkey is our lifeline." Pushed ever closer to Ankara, Talabani also insisted that Iraqi Kurdistan will not be used as a base by the EK.K. for "terrorist attacks" on Turkey. "The region will be cleared," he said. One need not read entrails or tea leaves to predict that it won't be long before Kurds will once more kill Kurds to serve someone else's agenda.

Why is it that our politicians--Republicans and Democrats alike--learn best from history how to repeat it? Jimmy Carter insisted Iran was "a great stabilizing force in the Middle East," until the Shah fell and the Ayatollah cost the President his job. Not to be outdone, Ronald Reagan saw no problem with shoring up Saddam Hussein's ambitions to counter Khomeini. And President Bush just followed suit. Now, though the Democrats are finally beginning to criticize this earlier policy toward Iraq, they show no sign of understanding the implications of the Administration's tilt toward Turkey, For all the lives and money lost in past geopolitical games, our strange relationship with the Turks may prove to be even more expensive for our children, No matter. While the descendants of the Ottomans dream of an empire revisited, the Bush Administration leads a new campaign to promote Turkey's influence in Central Asia to counter the threat of Iran.

Vera Beaudin Saeedpour is Director of the Center for Research at the Kurdish Library in Brooklyn.
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Title Annotation:post-Gulf War geopolitics
Author:Saeedpour, Vera Beaudin
Publication:The Nation
Date:Sep 14, 1992
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