Image: A member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party
Khalid Mohammed  /  AP
A member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by its acronym PKK, is seen near the Turkish border with Iraq. The PKK, estimated to have 5,000 fighters, could benefit politically from an Iraq campaign by claiming to be the champion of all Kurds in the face of an invader with a history of human rights abuses.
updated 10/30/2007 11:10:19 PM ET 2007-10-31T03:10:19

A few years ago, Turkey’s Kurdish guerrillas seemed adrift, their leader jailed and numbers diminished. Prone to factionalism, they were unsure of whether to pursue war or peace.

Now the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has commandeered debate over Turkey’s Kurdish ethnic minority with attacks that goaded the government into threatening a cross-border offensive against separatist hideouts in Iraq.

Such a campaign could destabilize one of Iraq’s few tranquil regions, hurt Turkey’s alliance with the U.S. and Europe, and trigger a sharp rise in global oil prices. The mountains of northern Iraq could neutralize the Turkish military’s tanks and helicopters, especially when winter snows begin to fall, favoring the tactics of the rebels.

“They seem to be emboldened,” said Yalim Eralp, a former Turkish diplomat who handled NATO affairs. He suggested the guerrillas had drawn encouragement and logistical support from Iraqi Kurds who consolidated autonomy in northern Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The rebel group, known as the PKK, has warned Turkey that it faces a quagmire if it sends troops into Iraq, and says the door is open to dialogue. Kurdish demands have run the spectrum from self-rule to more limited rights, such as increased freedom to educate and broadcast in their language.

PKK commander warns Turkey
After an Oct. 21 ambush that killed 12 Turkish soldiers, northern Iraq-based PKK commander Murat Karayilan warned Turkey that unless it recognized the language, cultural and political rights of Kurds, “this won’t be the last.”

Turkey, which refuses to negotiate with the PKK, says the group in reality seeks a separate homeland and softens its public demands for political gain. It accuses the PKK, labeled a terrorist organization by Europe and the United States, of acting like a criminal gang by raising funds through extortion and drug-smuggling.

The PKK, estimated to have 5,000 fighters, could benefit politically from an Iraq campaign by claiming to be the champion of all Kurds in the face of an invader with a history of human rights abuses. Fighting could shift attention from moderate Kurds who have responded at the polls to the Turkish ruling party’s pledges of better conditions and economic support.

“Turkey has played it badly,” said James Brandon, a London-based analyst who visited the PKK’s main base at Mount Qandil in northern Iraq last year. “The thing to do is to ignore the guys in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

Turkish jet fighters and helicopters have attacked suspected rebel positions in a sharp escalation of fighting within Turkish borders since the Oct. 21 ambush. Turkey has also shelled Iraqi territory.

Turkey: Iraq incursion decision to wait
Turkey has urged Iraq to choke off supplies to the group’s bases and arrest its leaders, but Iraq’s central government, and the Iraqi Kurd administration in the north, have not done so.

Turkey’s military said it will wait for a decision on what to do when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan returns from a Nov. 5 meeting in Washington with President Bush, who has urged Turkey to act with restraint.

Unlikely to win recognition
Even if Turkey’s alliances fray, the PKK is unlikely to win international recognition and status as the sole representative of Turkish Kurd aspirations because of its track record of bombings and assassinations.

David Phillips, author of a report on the PKK by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York, said candidates of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party ran for parliament in July with PKK approval. However, the party only won four out of 12 seats from the Diyarbakir area, a traditional PKK stronghold.

Turkey’s new president, Abdullah Gul, toured mostly Kurdish areas last month with a message of unity and was greeted with flowers and blessings. Gul’s gesture was highly unusual for a Turkish head of state, and represented the Islamic-oriented government’s shift away from the bitter relationship between Kurds and the military-backed, secular elite.

“This increase in PKK activities is in part an effort to assert their relevance since their support is waning at the ballot box,” Phillips said.

Kurds gain rights, but seek more
The Turkish government granted some cultural rights to Kurds as part of its bid to join the European Union. But many Kurds, who comprise 20 percent of Turkey’s population of 75 million, chafe under state controls on freedom of expression.

The PKK started as a Marxist-Leninist group demanding an independent homeland, but shed socialist ideology with the end of the Cold War and says it seeks some degree of self rule, similar to that of Spain’s semiautonomous Catalonia region.

Arrested in 1999, PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan still enjoys a personality cult among sympathizers and is believed to send directives through lawyers from prison.

But the tight control that characterized the PKK eroded. In 2004, it dropped a unilateral cease-fire. Last year, a splinter operation called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons bombed Turkish tourist resorts. An Iranian Kurd group affiliated with the PKK is fighting Iran.

Even the PKK’s military operations are believed to be highly decentralized, with significant independence between the faction based in Iraq and units deep within Turkey. The Kurdish diaspora in Europe, a rich source of PKK funding, also chimes in on the political agenda of Turkish Kurds.

“There have been a lot of times in the past when people were saying the PKK was finished,” said Brandon. “They’ve never gone away, but now people are starting to realize that they’ve never gone away.”

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