- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

SEYYED SADIQ, Iraq — Battered during the U.S.-led war on Iraq, Turkey’s 50-year alliance with Washington now faces a potentially far more serious crisis, this time from resurgent Kurdish separatism.

Members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been fighting Turkish forces in southeastern Turkey since June 2004, five years after their 15-year war against the Turkish state ended in defeat.

An estimated 35,000 people were killed between 1984 and 1999. The death toll from renewed fighting the past year is thought to be more than 500.

Turkey has long pleaded with the United States to help dislodge the PKK from its mountain bases in Kurdish northern Iraq. Denied substantial assistance, the country has recently hardened its tone.

If the United States does “nothing to prevent the continuing presence of the PKK terrorist organization in northern Iraq,” said Turkish Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug, “we could … go into the region ourselves.”

Washington’s official response to Gen. Basbug’s recent remarks, that Turkish cross-border operations could damage efforts to unify Iraq, have only stoked Turkish anti-Americanism.

Polled by the Istanbul-based Ari Group this month, 71 percent of Turkish respondents said they believed the West was “helping to strengthen the PKK.” Thirty-five percent thought Turkey and the United States were “rapidly moving toward war.”

In such an atmosphere, conspiracy theories are rampant.

One hawkish columnist in the daily Milliyet asserted that “the PKK is fighting for the interests of the United States to weaken the prestige of the Turkish army … thus reducing its political influence.”

But such expressions of angry bafflement are not the preserve of hard-liners. Few understand why the PKK felt the need to go back to war.

It long ago dropped calls for an independent Kurdistan, replacing them with demands for liberties almost certain be assured by European Union accession.

PKK leaders claim to support Turkey’s EU bid.

Fighting only risks sabotaging it, along with the aspirations of Turkey’s fiercely pro-European Kurds.

For Enver Sezgin, columnist with a monthly magazine aimed at a Kurdish audience, Turkey is experiencing “not a war, but a ‘war game’”.

Imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, he argues, wants to be accepted as the official interlocutor for a solution to the Kurdish question and fighting strengthens his bar- gaining position.

Analysts interpret the unsolved assassinations earlier this month of two prominent PKK dissidents as evidence of PKK attempts to retain dominance.

After Ocalan’s capture in 1999, a senior Iraqi Kurdish intelligence source said, “many if not most” PKK veterans have left the organization, most leaving in the past year.

About 200 of them now live in Seyyed Sadiq, a town near the Iranian border.

The turning point was 1999, the ex-militants said.

“When you’re fighting, you don’t have time for questions,” explained Zuhal Serhat, 25. “After the cease-fire, discipline began to seem mere authoritarianism. We demanded change. None came.”

“We looked around us, ” agreed Gabar Botan, 30. “Free speech a sham, leaders who hadn’t changed in 20 years.” Like most in Seyyed Sadiq, Mr. Botan quit last autumn, when the party briefly made resignations possible.

Mrs. Serhat fled late this past April.

“The open-door policy only lasted about six weeks,” she said. “So many left [that] the leaders decided not to allow anybody else out.” Asked what would happen if the policy was repeated, ex-fighters are unanimous that most would leave.

But they also acknowledge that the past year has seen a rapid increase in recruiting in the PKK base on Qandil mountain.

The newcomers “have been robotized by Rambo [war] films and propaganda,” said former PKK commander Hayri Dersim, 29.

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