Image: KURDS IN IRBIL
Khalid Mohammed  /  AP file
Like other Kurds in northern Iraq, these men in a cafe in Irbil have blood ties to the Kurdish rebels fighting Turkey. But tensions between civilians and the guerrillas are growing.
updated 11/14/2007 2:32:17 PM ET 2007-11-14T19:32:17

Kurdish guerrillas watch the border for any signs that Turkey's military will carry out threats to sweep across. But other rumblings are coming from inside Iraq: a new ambivalence among Iraq's Kurds about support for their rebel cousins holed up in the mountains.

The fear — expressed by Kurdish officials and on the streets — is that the showdown could threaten the relatively peaceful and prosperous enclave that Kurds have carved out since 1991 after generations of poverty and oppression.

Even a small shift in sentiment is meaningful since the Kurdish separatists in Turkey — known as the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK — have counted on deep Kurdish nationalism for decades to protect their supply lines and hideouts in the northern Iraq.

"It's making a lot of people nervous," Ismail Zayer, an Arab newspaper editor with long-standing ties to the Kurds, speaking of the escalating PKK-Turkey tensions.

"A lot of nationalistic Kurds have become less nationalistic," he said. "The Kurds understand that independence is not necessarily a state and a flag. Rather it is having stability and a good economy."

Kurds are a major ethnic group straddling four countries — Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria — totaling about 20 million people. Most live in Turkey, primarily in the southeast, where the PKK has been fighting for autonomy since 1984 in a conflict that has killed nearly 40,000 people.

With the rest of Iraq plagued by bombings and killings, the three northern Kurdish provinces have emerged as an oasis of calm and a magnet for foreign investment.

All that could be at risk if Turkey begins a major attack against the PKK, whose fighters launch deadly attacks against Turkish soldiers across the border.

PKK is 'annoying,' says governor
On Tuesday, Turkish helicopter gunships fired on abandoned villages believed used as PKK outposts. The raid occurred in Dahuk province, the booming gateway for Turkish imports.

"To be honest, the PKK is an annoying organization," said Dahuk's governor, Taher Fattah Ramadan, in his office just 44 miles from the border.

Ramadan said both Turks and Iraqi Kurds benefit from a bustling cross-border trade that a Turkish attack would put in peril.

"The (Turkish) province just over the frontier has over 180 companies and financial institutions that benefit directly from trade and investment in northern Iraq," he said.

To decrease their political isolation, Kurds are reaching out to other countries, said Zayer, who runs his newspaper from Irbil after repeated attempts on his life in Baghdad.

As an example, the regional Ministry of Culture invited Egyptian journalists and academics to a recent conference in memory of Mohammed Ali Awni, a Turkish-born Kurd who translated books on the Kurds into Arabic in the last century.

"We hope that these sorts of celebrations will help reduce the tensions in the region and allow space for discussion," regional Culture Minister Falkadin Kakei told The Associated Press.

Kakei also expressed frustration with the PKK's reliance on attacks rather than dialogue or political pressure.

"We have officially told them (the PKK) to lay down their arms ... and fight the cause through other means," he said.

Ironically, Turkey considers Kakei a PKK sympathizer because he has campaigned for the release of Kurdish prisoners in Turkey, including Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK.

Six months ago, Turkish officials barred Kakei from attending a cultural conference in Diyarbakir, a main city in Turkey's southeast.

"The problem is that the PKK and Turkey are both hard-liners, the PKK is like Turkey. They both think in the same way. The two are the same," Kakei said.

Even as the Kurds try to reach out to their neighbors, they face a legacy of negative feelings. The Egyptian press, for example, regularly accuses them of trying to split up Iraq and even of collaborating with Israel.

"We are not a new Israel. We have lived among the Arabs for the last 1,400 years," Othman Rashid, the mufti of Irbil, told the Egyptian delegation in his mosque high in the city's ancient, crumbling citadel.

Many Kurds, however, still cleave to their fiercely independent ways, and note how most Arab regimes kept silent while they were being massacred by Saddam Hussein. After the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds came under the protection of U.S.-led air patrols and broke nearly all ties with Baghdad.

Marxist historian Ezzeddine Rasoul Mustafa described how, even today, the Arab satellite television stations bristle with hostility toward the Kurds.

"The Arab satellite channels still have sympathy for Saddam Hussein's viewpoint," he said. "We can't hide the fact that there are Kurds who hope for an independent united Kurdistan. The Arabs have to understand this."

PKK: Kurds must stick together
This is precisely the view of the leftist PKK rebels. They claim that Arabs, Turks and Iranians will always be arrayed against them and that Kurds must stick together.

"The Turks are just using the PKK as an excuse to invade. Their main target is to destroy the political and social infrastructure of Kurds in northern Iraq," Nizamettin Toguc, a member of the PKK-affiliated Kurdish National Congress, told the AP in Irbil.

A colleague, Khalil Mohammad, called this "a golden time" for the PKK since its fight has caught the world's attention. Turkey has made previous incursions against the PKK bases in northern Iraq in the 1990s, but now the stakes are much higher.

"For 20 years no one had questioned the situation with Turkey," Mohammad said. "Now they are."

For many Kurds in the autonomous region, however, the grand fight for a Kurdish state seems less pressing than just recovering from their own years of war.

North of Irbil, in the rolling hills around the village of Barzan, the tribal homeland of the region's president and prime minister, is a cemetery for 500 bodies of Barzanis — all that could be recovered from mass graves in the south from a massacre of 8,000 clan members carried out by Saddam in 1983.

Nearby towns, though, show signs of construction. Awkward new concrete buildings spring up next to the more traditional stone huts.

Teacher Abdel Qader said the days of unchallenged backing for the PKK appear to be waning.

"They are Kurds," he said. "We don't support them. But we are not against them."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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