- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2002

From combined dispatches
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey The new name says it all. A Kurdish rebel group with a history of ruthless guerrilla attacks is trying to shed its bloody image and become a legitimate political force.
What was the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, will become the Democratic Republic Party, said Kurdish sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"The coming days will be decisive for the PKK's future," said the group's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is being held on a remote island while he appeals a death sentence.
His statement, appearing in the Germany-based Kurdish paper Ozgur Politika, indicated he is trying to reshape his party from behind bars, where he has been held for three years.
But the government is unlikely to accept the group and says giving in to Kurdish demands could break up the country along ethnic lines.
The PKK's attempts to clean up its image are likely aimed at Europe, where the group has a strong presence, analysts say. Turkey is pressing the European Union to include the PKK on its list of terrorist groups, as the United States has done.
"The PKK is the old PKK with a different tactic," said Michael Radu, an expert on terrorism with the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. "Ocalan is a much more effective public-relations strategist than Turkey, and he is telling Europe how nice his organization is."
The PKK was founded 24 years ago in 1978 with the goal of getting Turkey to grant autonomy to the Kurdish minority. It turned to armed struggle in 1984, and the fighting has claimed 37,000 lives.
There are some 12 million Kurds in Turkey, most living in the southeast. Although they represent about 20 percent of the population of 67 million, the government doesn't recognize them as an official minority. Kurdish language is outlawed in schools, at official events and in broadcasts other than music.
"People can speak Kurdish if they want," Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said on Friday. "But we cannot accept Kurdish education."
Ocalan called a cease-fire after his arrest, but the government rejected it, and fighting continues, though it has decreased considerably in recent years.
While most Turks consider the Kurdish rebels a barbaric terrorist group, there is considerable sympathy for them outside the country.
Ocalan's fate has become a key issue in Turkey's relations with the European Union. The EU has demanded that Turkey lift Ocalan's death sentence and says allowing Kurdish education is crucial for Turkey's hopes of joining the union.
On the third anniversary last Friday of Ocalan's arrest, Diyarbakir the largest city in the Kurdish-dominated southeast was surprisingly calm.
Previous anniversaries have seen clashes, but on Valentine's Day the bars and restaurants were crammed with romantic couples. That's quite a change from the days before the cease-fire, when the streets would have been empty after dark.
Many Kurds in Diyarbakir supported the PKK's decision last week to rename itself and halt activities under the old name. In turn, they say, authorities should end discrimination against Kurds.
Veysi Bolca, who manages local Gun TV a station that was banned for a year last week for airing a Kurdish song critical of Turkish soldiers expressed his frustration. "They are always looking for something to punish us for," he said.
Meanwhile, Turkey and Iraq its neighbor to the southeast, which is also concerned about Kurdish nationalism began discussing their economic ties this week amid mounting concern in both countries that Baghdad could be the next target of U.S. military strikes.
A Turkish diplomat told Agence France-Presse that senior diplomats from Iran and Iraq met in Ankara on Monday and "took up the economic aspect of our relations, and also international developments." The diplomat said the talks were part of regular political consultations between the two countries.
The head of the Iraqi delegation, Mohammed Ahmed, said Baghdad was willing to boost trade with Turkey.
"Trade is constantly improving, and both sides are willing to further develop the relations," Anatolia news agency quoted him as saying.
Turkey, a member of NATO and a key Muslim ally of the United States, has recently stepped up efforts to revitalize trade with Iraq, which has been badly affected by U.N. sanctions imposed on Baghdad for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Turkey puts its trade losses as a result to about $40 billion.
While the Iraqi diplomats met with their Turkish counterparts, a group of U.S. congressmen held a separate meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Ankara to promote Turkish-American friendship.


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