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Turks Ponder Attack on Kurdish Guerillas in Iraq; Iraqi Kurds Worried

  • Margaret Besheer
  • Barry Newhouse

There is growing concern in Turkey and in northern Iraq about a Turkish military buildup for a possible incursion against Kurdish rebel bases in Iraqi territory. From Istanbul, VOA's Barry Newhouse reports, Turks are divided about whether a cross-border operation would do much to stop rebel attacks in Turkey. And in villages along Iraqi Kurdistan's border with Turkey, VOA's Margaret Besheer reports, residents say artillery strikes are coming across the border, making life difficult.

From Barry Newhouse in Istanbul, Turkey:

Turkey's fight against the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) dominates domestic news coverage, with television footage of soldiers' funerals and front page newspaper stories about the military buildup. Since 1984, fighting between PKK guerillas and the Turkish military has killed some 30,000 people, but in recent months the army has threatened a major incursion into northern Iraq to decisively end the insurgency Turkey says is being run by militants over the border.

But many Turks are still unsure about whether that is necessary.

Skeptics say a cross-border operation could not end an insurgency that the army has failed to put down even after several previous operations inside Iraq.

"Most people want to enter into northern Iraq, and it seems like all of them believe that it will solve all of the problems of Turkey," said Onur Gunay, a graduate student of sociology at Bosporus University in Istanbul. "But it's obvious that the Turkish army has entered a lot of times, and nothing changed."

Turkish political leaders also have expressed skepticism that a cross-border operation would end the Kurdish rebel insurgency. But many Turks have serious concerns about what they perceive as a threat from the autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq. Many Turks believe the Iraqi Kurdish leaders have ties to Kurdish rebels in Turkey.

The Turkish military says PKK rebels use bases in northern Iraq to train and prepare for attacks inside Turkey. In recent months, a string of bombing and gunbattles in southeastern Turkey has targeted soldiers and checkpoints. The Kurdish government denies it supports the PKK and says the rebels' campaign has in fact harmed Iraqi Kurds.

But many Turks are skeptical of the denials, and are increasingly wary of involvement in the region by Turkey's NATO ally, the United States. In a recent opinion poll measuring what people in Turkey perceive as the country's biggest threat, the United States was first and Iraqi Kurds were second. Leyla Tausanoglu, a political columnist for the independent Cumhuriyet newspaper, says many Turks are skeptical of American plans because of the Iraq war, and are now suspicious of U.S. ties with Iraqi Kurdish leaders.

"The Americans can say, 'stop this - what are you doing?' They don't," she said. "This means they are implicitly supporting the PKK, fighting with the Turkish army."

The United States, like Turkey, classifies the PKK as a terrorist group.

Turkey's military has repeatedly asked the central Iraqi government and U.S. officials to do more to crack down on rebel bases in northern Iraq. So far, U.S. and Iraqi officials have urged dialogue to resolve the situation. The U.S. Defense Department says Washington understands the threat of terrorism Turkey faces from the PKK, but that the U.S. does not believe a Turkish military excursion into Iraq would be helpful.

Many Turks hope negotiations will be the answer to solving the separatist insurgency. This man, who works as a sunflower farmer in a village outside Istanbul, says he grieves for the Turkish soldiers killed by Kurdish rebels, but more fighting will not solve the problem.

"We condemn these attacks, and America has a big share of the solution in these problems," he said. "The problem must be solved, without shedding blood or invading a country."

From Margaret Besheer Kani Masi, Iraq:

But limited Turkish strikes inside Iraq have already had an impact on villagers on the Iraq side of the border.

In the remote mountain region of Kani Masi, Iraqi Kurds in the hamlet of Bedhoe tell VOA that most of the residents have fled in recent weeks. They say Turkey has stepped-up shelling in the area and are concerned that a full-scale invasion is imminent.

Ramadan Abdulrahman, like many of his neighbors, says he thinks Turkey will invade soon. He says he has seen a daily increase in the Turkish troop presence along the border, and he believes they are coming closer to entering the Iraqi villages.

Fruit orchards dot the picturesque valley nestled among the mountains. Most people here raise sheep and goats, and grow apples, apricots and other fruits.

Faisal Mohammed Ahmed is from the village of Derishki. He says residents are terrified of the shelling. He says they can't work on their farms, or take their goats outside the village because they are afraid of more shelling.

Many villagers complain that the Turkish shelling, which comes over the mountains from the Turkish side of the border, has killed their animals. They also say Turkish soldiers have come into Iraqi Kurdish villages close to the border and confiscated their sheep and goats, and even detained some of the farmers. Turkey denies its forces have crossed the Iraqi border.

The villagers say they do not support the rebels, but they defend their actions.

Farmer Ramadan says the PKK would not fight, if the Turks did not attack them in the first place. He says, if the Turkish army enters Iraqi Kurdistan, the PKK will fight. But he, like others in this area, says the best way to solve the problem is through dialogue, not war, because, in war, there are no winners.

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