- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria, Feb. 8 (UPI) — A Syrian military judge has decided to refer two Kurdish activists to the Supreme State Security Court on charges of inciting religious and ethnic discord, a spokesman for the banned Kurdish Yikiti group leader said Saturday.

Abdel Baqi Youssef told United Press International that the charges the two Yikiti leaders now face were "fabrications" and that Hassan Saleh and Marwan Othman were only calling for respecting "the rights of the Kurds in Syria as a non-Arab ethnic group."

Referring the activists for trial in the security court, particularly after weeks of questioning, usually means Syria is taking the case very seriously.

Saleh, 55, and Othman, 45, were arrested in December after taking part in a Kurdish protest — the first of its kind — in front of the People's Council, the Syrian parliament. They also met with House Speaker Abdel Qader Kaddoura.

The two Kurds were seeking "recognition in the (Syrian) Constitution of their language as well as restoring the nationality" of an estimated 200,00 Kurds in the predominantly Arab country.

Some 100 Kurdish demonstrators, mostly members of Yikiti, had raised during their protest banners that read: "We request lifting suppression on the Kurdish people in Syria and recognizing their national identity."

Kurdish sources quoted a prominent official in the ruling Ba'ath Party as saying that "the Kurdish issue is linked to the Arab national security."

Other analysts have said Syria fears foreign powers might use the Kurds as part of a wider plans to partition the region after ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Last August, Syrian President Bashar Assad visited the Kurdish-dominant al-Hasaka province in a first such move by a Syrian leader for more than 40 years. Assad's visit was interpreted as an attempt to address the Kurdish issue and resolve Syria's security concerns.

Al-Hasaka is located close to the Iraqi frontier on the south and the east as well as to Turkey on the north — two countries that also have substantial Kurdish populations.

The Kurds comprise non-Arab tribal peoples who emerged in southwestern Asia, particularly in its mountainous areas, in roughly the 3rd century B.C. The Kurdistan region overlaps the present-day intersection of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Ethnically and linguistically they are related to Persians, and are known for their poetry, epic songs and other cultural traditions.

Most Kurds are either Shiite or more often Sunni Muslims, but a minority still practices the religious beliefs of their ancient roots. In Iraq the Kurdish population achieved virtual autonomy after the 1991 Gulf War. Groups in other countries, however, including Syria, have struggled for recognition and rights to practice and teach Kurdish languages and other cultural traditions.

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