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Turkish Kurds Worried About Imminent Iraq War - 2003-03-19


On the eve of possible war in Iraq, Turkish Kurds living near the border with Iraq are nervously watching the military buildup, worried that the war may spread to their hometowns.

On the potholed streets of Silopi, a slow but steady stream of dark green Turkish army vehicles heads south, crossing the last few miles to the Iraqi border. Supply trucks, jeeps, armored personnel carriers and tanks all proceed under the suspicious gaze of the town's Kurdish population.

Some analysts estimate that the Turkish army will have as many as 70,000 troops in the border region. The question is whether Turkey will send the troops into Northern Iraq when the war starts. Turkey wants to prevent Iraqi Kurds who have been living in an autonomous area protected by foreign forces from establishing an independent state. Turkey fears that would foster separatist dreams in its own large Kurdish population.

The United States and the Iraqi Kurdish leaders say that will not happen, but Turkey is not taking any chances. And in Silopi, Turkey's nearest town to the Iraqi border, local Kurds are worried about the deployment, fearing that Iraqi Kurds will be squeezed between the forces of Saddam Hussein in the south, and Turkey in the north.

Turkey has promised that its forces will simply protect its border from a huge new wave of refugees, like the half-million who flooded into Turkey during the 1991 Gulf War.

On the streets of Silopi, under the ever-present gaze of Turkish army personnel, few people are prepared to speak out. But in side street cafes, many gather to catch up on the latest news, and discuss the fate of Kurds like themselves. Sitting around a table filled with small glasses of sweet tea, many predict fighting could erupt in Northern Iraq between the Turkish army and the Kurdish irregular army, the Peshmerga.

One 25-year-old man man called Feyzeh says if that happens Turkish Kurds will take up arms and fight alongside the Iraqi Kurds against the Turkish army

A married man, who identified himself as Ahmed, says he is sending his wife and two-year-old son to relatives near Istanbul, 1600 kilometers away on the other side of the country. But, like many in Silopi, a town with high unemployment, he cannot afford to flee himself.

With everyone waiting for the fighting to start, many Kurds in Silopi hope there is still time for a deal to be made between Washington and Ankara, allowing U.S. troops to come to eastern Turkey. They think an American presence would ensure that long-time bitterness between Turks and Kurds does not erupt into armed conflict.

But for the moment the only military vehicles moving through Silopi toward the Iraqi border bear the Turkish red crescent, not the white star of the U.S. army.

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