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Kurds on edge in Turkey

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Turkish Kurds negotiate traffic on the main street in Yuksekova, about 30 miles away from the volatile Turkey-Iraq border. (Yigal Schleifer)

Turkish Kurds negotiate traffic on the main street in Yuksekova, about 30 miles away from the volatile Turkey-Iraq border. (Yigal Schleifer)

YUKSEKOVA, Turkey (JTA) – If not for the military helicopters flying overhead and the occasional armored personnel carrier rolling slowly down the street, this small city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast might seem the picture of normalcy.

Children play on the sidewalks, kebab restaurants do brisk business and the roads are clogged with honking cars and trucks.

But only 30 miles away, a burgeoning confrontation between Kurdish fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Turkish troops that have been sent in to quell their attacks threatens to turn this area into a war zone.

Turkey has launched a massive troop buildup in southeastern Turkey and threatened to invade Iraq to pursue the rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Dozens already have been killed in skirmishes between the two sides in recent weeks.

In a region that during the 1980s and 1990s saw thousands of people killed and entire villages destroyed in fighting between the PKK and Turkish soldiers, the prospect of renewed violence is causing deep concern.

Many people living in this heavily Kurdish part of Turkey fear the rebel attacks could prompt the government to roll back the limited democratic reforms they have gained over the last few years, and drive a wedge between them and the rest of Turkey.

The tension along this important border has important regional and geopolitical ramifications. The border skirmishes have added tension to the already strained relationship between Turkey and the United States, which Ankara blames for not pressing Kurdish leaders in Iraq to suppress the PKK rebels.

Also, the instability along this border could hurt ties between Turkey and Israel, which has been accused of secretly aiding Iraqi Kurds and even the PKK. Furthermore, Turkey’s increasing distance from the United States could drive Turkey to seek closer ties with other regional players hostile to the Jewish state.

“There is now a situation where Turkey, because of the Kurdish situation, feels closer to Syria and Iran,” said Omer Taspinar, director of the Turkey program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

With large Kurdish populations themselves, both Syria and Iran share Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish separatism and nationalism.

“On the most essential national security question of Turkey, Ankara doesn’t feel that Washington is on its side,” Taspinar said. “Damascus is. Tehran is. Even [Israel] is not seen as being on its side.”

Tensions calmed a bit following the recent visit to the United States by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who obtained from President Bush a promise for greater U.S. help in reining in the PKK.

But with Turkish troops maintaining their large presence in southeastern Turkey in the event that Ankara decides to stage a major invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan, towns like this one remain on edge.

Entering and leaving Yuksekova now requires passing through several checkpoints, some manned by soldiers and others by plainclothes policemen who closely inspect every vehicle and its passengers.

In a dark cafe in the center of Yuksekova, a teacher who identified himself as Ihsan said he has been unable to return to the village where he works since Oct. 21, when a PKK ambush there left 12 Turkish soldiers dead.

Areas that locals used only a few weeks ago to forage for wild greens now have been laid with mines, Ihsan said.

“Now the people are caught between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “They have to learn how to navigate between the army and the PKK.”

The tensions along the Iraqi border have exposed the deep rift in Turkish society between the Kurds living in southeastern Turkey and Turks in the rest of the country.

In recent weeks, the renewed PKK attacks have prompted demonstrations across Turkey, with thousands of flag-waving marchers calling for severe action against the PKK. Mobs in several cities attacked the offices of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, which has 20 members in parliament.

“What will ruin Turkey are these protests,” said Halit Tekci, 65, at a sidewalk cafe in Yuksekova. “They should want brotherhood just as we do. These protests only increase hatred against the Kurds and will lead to a Turkish-Kurdish conflict.”

Tekci’s son was killed by Turkish forces in 1994.

Aliza Marcus, a former Reuters correspondent in Turkey and the author of the recently published “Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence,” said deep ties between the PKK and Kurds in southeastern Turkey have left the rebel group with a strong reserve of sympathy and respect in the region.

“Certainly the PKK is not as popular as it was in the 1990s,” she said. “But still it is very strong and it’s able to direct the Kurdish political debate in Turkey.”

Some Turks seem as worried by the prospect of the PKK threat spurring the government to limit freedoms in this deeply Kurdish part of the country as they are about the prospect of bloodshed along the Iraq-Turkey border.

“The real danger is the Kurdish issue threatening Turkish democracy,” said Volkan Aytar, a researcher at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, an Istanbul-based think tank. “You are seeing an increasing securitization of the Turkish political discourse, which is threatening democratization.”

Under pressure from the European Union, which it hopes to join, Turkey has instituted a series of political reforms that allow for limited Kurdish-language broadcasts and Kurdish language courses in private forums.

That has won the government the support of locals here, but that could change if Ankara clamps down on the Kurds to prevent them from supporting Kurdish separatism.

“If the local population sees democratic reforms being rolled back, they could fall back into supporting the PKK and following a more radical line,” Aytar warned.

In Yuksekova, it seems almost everyone knows a PKK fighter who has been killed or is up in the mountains of northern Iraq fighting the Turks.

“If you knock on any door here, you find someone who has lost a loved one,” said Yuksekova Mayor Mehmet Salih Yildiz, a member of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party.

The mayor’s two sons were killed in fighting with the PKK.

Yildiz said he hopes his city soon will be able to return to normal despite the drums of war sounding throughout Turkey.

“If there is an incursion, it impacts us directly,” he said. “People are sick and tired of this conflict. They hate it.”

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