- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2005

Diyarbakir, TURKEY.

While Iraqi Kurds prefer federalism to a “unified nation-state” for the future of a Saddam Hussein-free Iraq, among the thorniest issues in writing the new Iraqi constitution have been Kurdish demands. And it was no coincidence that Turkish PrimeMinisterRecep Tayyip Erdogan last week visited Diyarbakir, the hotbed of Kurdish nationalism in this country.

Mr. Erdogan became the first Turkish leader to say out loud that there is a “Kurdish problem” and the first to address the Kurdish people without reciting the line of the PKK, the separatist Kurdish terrorist organization. Anti-Americanism in Turkey is related more to America’s inaction against the PKK than the legality or reasoning behind the Iraq war.

Yet Turkish officials make mistakes that don’t help their case in terms of the PKK. Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, stresses that because some senior Turkish government officials approve of Hamas, they undercut their argument against their own terrorist threat. Turkey’s mainstream political parties and the military also seem to disagree with Mr. Erdogan’s comments on Hamas and the “Kurdish problem.”

The Kurds’ challenge has always been distinguishing between supporting violence and human-rights issues. When PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was arrested in 1999, Kurdish people in many European capitals freely protested his arrest. His sympathizers demonstrated outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington. Now, think for a momentaboutalQaeda sympathizers pouring onto the streets of allied countries’ capitals in support of Osama bin Laden. Unquestionably, it would have a chilling effect on the American people. Unfortunately, Turks know how that feels. Al Qaeda and the PKK have different ideologies, but at their cores, they are terrorist organizations and have been labeled as such by the United States and the European Union. Neither September 11 nor the bombings in London were deserved, and PKK terrorism should not be justified under any circumstances.

Diyarbakir is the only place in Turkey where Prime Minister Erdogan travels under the protection of at least 4,000 security personnel. Diyarbakir is not a war zone, but PKK sympathizers were not hard to find on its downtown streets. People chanted slogans in support of Mr. Ocalan, and some said Murat Karayilan, a senior PKK terrorist, had sent the message not to disrupt Mr. Erdogan’s visit. Diyarbakir looks more wealthy and clean than it did six years ago, but unemployment is still a problem. There’s a belief here that the state has always been the employer in this country, and it should give Diyarbakir an exclusive economic package to help alleviate joblessness.

But the most crucial question is what happens if America acts against the PKK. “It won’t be good,” said Kadir Konuksever, media coordinator at the Diyarbakir mayor’s office. “The Kurdish people have tremendous sympathy for America, as they think it is helping the Kurds in Northern Iraq to build an independent Kurdistan.”

At the same time, people on the other side of the country have been expressing their belief that PKK terrorism has kicked up again because of America. For them, the demon is not the PKK, but the United States.

What do the Kurds want? “Not everyone should be forced to say, one [should] be happy to call her/himself a Turk. There are others who are not Turks in this country,” said Diyarbakir Mayor Osman Baydemir. He says they need more democracy. But a Turkey destined to stay on the course to become an EU member promises democracy to all of its people.

Mr. Erdogan is right to say, “The Kurdish problem is everybody’s problem, but above all mine.” In Diyarbakir, he sounded like Abraham Lincoln when he declared slavery not only a Southern crime but a national crime. As much as Mr. Erdogan seems to be inspired by a Lincolnian democracy, where secession is not even an option, he chooses to stay silent while there’s a skyrocketing belief among the Turkish public that America wants to create an independent Kurdistan.

Instead, at the expense of angering America, Turkey began cooperating with Iran and Syria. Kurds in those countries displayed some unrest against the governments, and the Iranian security forces recently began clashing with PKK terrorists, too. Iranians extradited more than 20 PKK terrorists within the last year. Most Turks believe that once America acts to topple the regimes in Syria or in Iran and creates a political vacuum, as it did in Iraq, people all over the region will begin battling to keep their borders intact. Syrians and Iranians may not be fond of their regimes, but no one wants to risk putting their territorial integrity in jeopardy in the name of spreading democracy.

If America has plans to spread democracy in Turkey’s neighborhood, the PKK should be the next target so that people can stop worrying about losing their land.

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. Previously she was a BBC reporter in Turkey.

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