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Kurdish Militants Seek to Undermine Turkish Military Offensive


Turkey has launched a new military operation against Kurdish rebels along the Iraqi border, prompted by a series of insurgent attacks against security forces. The campaign is the latest in the long struggle against the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, by the Turkish government, which is trying to balance integration of Kurdish citizens with appeasing outrage over the attacks.

The latest strikes have been a blow to Turkey's self-image as a new regional leader, a reminder of a problem that has festered since 1984, when the PKK launched its insurgency in the southeast.

A top Turkish diplomat is among those trying to downplay the incidents. Huseyin Avni Botsali, the country's ambassador to Egypt, says the government is not underestimating the attacks, but cautions they must be put in a broader context.

"They definitely have a destabilizing effect, but they are tactical developments, some of the negative attitudes are influencing it," he said. "Some people try to use violence in order to push for a political agenda. And history has proven time and again that violence is not going to deliver anything."

While the PKK may not be able to beat the government militarily, the government, despite decades of battle, has yet to defeat the rebels. The current leadership has taken a more comprehensive approach, addressing Kurdish grievances, which are at the heart of Kurdish support for the group.

But a major initiative last year ran into trouble almost immediately. One blow to the program came when former PKK fighters returning from Iraq were given a hero's welcome, prompting opposition political parties to decry what they called government concessions.

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which faces elections next year, is caught between stepping up action against the rebels, and concerns that not only has the initiative stalled, but may not have gone far enough to begin with.

"The problem is that although the prime minister has shown a lot of respect for Kurdishness, which is a great breakthrough in Turkey, a lot of the details of what was called the democratic opening have not managed to capture the imagination of Kurdish nationalists," Hugh Pope, project director for Turkey at the International Crisis Group in Istanbul, stated.

The government has tried hard to separate the two issues; that of improving conditions for Kurdish citizens and eliminating the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by Ankara, the European Union and the United States.

Pope says Mr. Erdogan's government has pushed forward on several fronts. "We must remember there are a fully representative number of Kurds in the Turkish parliament and indeed in the cabinet. And these days Kurdish is freely spoken in the the southeast, and there is now almost a Kurdish bourgeoisie in the southeast that is fairly independent," he said.

The promise of economic betterment is also part of Ankara's attempt to undermine another traditional support base for the PKK. The insurgents have found refuge across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan, and relations with Iraqi Kurds, including regional President Massoud Barzani and national President Jalal Talibani, were long troubled.

Ekrem Guzeldere is an analyst at the European Stability Initiative in Istanbul. "Barzani and Talabani - they were monsters. They were killers in the Turkish press some years ago. Now they are partners in security issues, partners in trade and economic relations," he explained.

Guzeldere says Turkish leaders made the point during a visit by Mr. Barzani earlier this month. "The number one issue was the fight against the PKK," he said. "And what the Turks offered Barzani was 'you fight more against the PKK and we give you more economic investment.'"

Guzeldere points to massive direct investment in such sectors as construction, as well as help in establishing educational facilities and a greater consulate presence. He says he believes material improvement will likely outweigh most Iraqi reservations about fighting fellow Kurds.

This multi-pronged attempt by the Turkish government to undermine the PKK already finds support in the United States as well as European nations and NATO. But it's not clear whether the government's long-term interests of establishing peace can withstand more immediate political pressures.

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