GIRMELI, Turkey—Every year, young men coming of age in this dusty, impoverished town in southeastern Turkey slip away into the hillsides to join the Kurdistan Workers Party and fight for independence for Turkey's 12 million to 15 million Kurds.
"A free Kurdish nation doesn't solve the poverty of our region," conceded Yusug Turgay, the mayor of this town of 5,000, where donkeys still haul wood to heat the homes, much as they did when Girmeli was founded 1,760 years ago. "That's solved only through jobs, which don't come to troubled corners of the world. We know this, but still our young men go into the mountains, to join the fight."
The PKK, as the Kurdistan Workers Party is known in its Kurdish initials, has been fighting this battle for 22 years, and by all accounts losing. At least 50,000 Kurdish men and boys have joined its cause over the years, but the PKK controls no territory. More than 30,000 Turkish soldiers and PKK guerrillas have been killed in fighting.
Yet the PKK, which the U.S. State Department lists as a terrorist organization, is a growing concern for Turkish officials, largely because of disintegrating conditions in Iraq.
Turkish officials fear that should Iraq's central government collapse, the three Kurdish provinces of northern Iraq, with their own military and their own government, would become an autonomous nation—and a source of inspiration for Kurdish separatists. Officials in Syria and Iran, which also are home to large Kurdish populations, share that concern.
Already, Turkish officials said, PKK guerrillas are seeking refuge in northern Iraq between battles with Turkish troops. Local Iraqi authorities and U.S. troops have made little effort to detain or deter them, Turkish officials charge. Some complain that the U.S. won't let Turkish troops pursue PKK forces into northern Iraq, but allowed Israel to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The boiling point could come as soon as next spring, when a PKK-declared cease-fire expires May 1. The Turkish military hasn't accepted the cease-fire, and its chief of staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, has promised to "keep up the struggle against terrorism until not even a single armed terrorist is left."
"I don't want to think about what is to come when the cease-fire ends," said Mehmet Dalhan, the mayor of nearby Nusaybin and a member of the Kurdish Democratic Society, the PKK's political wing.
The PKK has become a tangible point of tension between NATO member Turkey and the United States. Turkish officials say the lack of U.S. action to stop the PKK from using northern Iraq as a refuge is insulting and have threatened to send in their own troops if nothing is done.
In November, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul bluntly warned Iraqi Kurds not to think about statehood and said Turkey wouldn't allow Iraq to break apart.
"You are on the brink of a historic mistake," Gul said, addressing the Kurds.
He was just as direct in addressing proposals often floated in the United States to break Iraq into three countries: one Shiite Muslim, one Sunni Muslim Arab and one Kurdish.
"There are those who think that dividing Iraq might be better, that this chaos might end," he said. "This is what we say: Don't even think of such an alternative."
Even those who say Turkish Kurds are unlikely to break away argue that an autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq wouldn't be acceptable. "People in Turkey believe it would be a territorial threat," said Faruk Logoglu, a retired Turkish diplomat and the head of one of Turkey's most respected research centers.
Whether the Turkish military would push its campaign against the PKK into northern Iraq isn't known; the Iraq Study Group, in its recent report suggesting changes to U.S. policy on Iraq, said Turkey already had done so.
But Kurds in Turkey's hardscrabble southeast say they expect the worst when the PKK cease-fire comes to an end.
"In the eyes of the Turkish military, we are all terrorists, we are all the enemy," said Abdulkerim Adam, the mayor of Yalim, another Kurdish village near here. He, too, is a member of the PKK-affiliated Kurdish Democratic Society.
Turkey has a long history of conflict with the Kurds, who dominate a region in southeastern Turkey near the borders with Iraq, Syria and Iran. The first rebellion by Kurds was in 1925, two years after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern, secular Turkish nation. There have been 28 upheavals since.
Most Turks are Sunnis, like the Kurds, but differences over language, culture and customs are at the root of the conflict. Kurds say the Turkish state is trying to wipe them out.
Until 1991, Turkey barred the use of the Kurdish language, and even now it can't be used in state documents. A human rights official is facing an $800 fine for using the Kurdish name for one of the area's provinces in an official letter.
Relaxed rules that allow private schools to teach Kurdish and some television broadcasts to use Kurdish have had little effect: Private schools are too expensive for most Kurds, and the broadcasts are too limited to reach most of them.
Earlier this year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to the region and promised "more democracy, more civil rights, more prosperity." Another Turkish minister even proposed making the PKK into a legitimate political force. Many politicians in southeastern Turkey said they'd hoped that the PKK cease-fire would allow a cooling-off period for talks on ways to improve the region's economy and, maybe, move toward an autonomous Kurdish zone in Turkey.
Some local political leaders say Turkish Kurds don't seek independence, just a better deal. "Every people want the chance to keep their history alive," said Ferhan Turk, the president of the Kurdish Democratic Society in Mardin, a town that traces its origins to the Hittites. "This is all we ask. But we can do this within a united Turkey."
Recent developments in Iraq, however, have sapped much of the optimism. With Kurdish flags flying across the border and evidence mounting that PKK cells have been training there, few expect Turkish national politicians to pursue a gentle course here, especially as they face elections next spring and fall. Kurds predict that poor economic conditions here will send more disaffected youths to the mountains.
Cihan Sincar, the mayor of Kiziltepe, a PKK stronghold, lost her husband to the fighting in 1993, and PKK guerrillas and the Turkish army clashed outside her office months ago. She thinks that most people want the fighting to end. But she also thinks that that won't happen soon.
"People are getting more and more desperate," she said. "I don't want to think about what will happen when the cease-fire deadline passes. It will be worse than ever."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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