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Turkish city dominated by Kurds prepares for war

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey—The cemetery clay, thick and dark and just the color of Turkish coffee, has been piled into ugly mounds beside freshly dug holes—open graves the city is already preparing for its war dead.

In an ominous trial run, local gravediggers found they could make 100 new graves a day.

"It's awful, I know, and I hate to talk about it," says Ahmet Zirek, deputy mayor of Diyarbakir, an ancient and somber city on the banks of the Tigris River. "Wars are the mother of all troubles, but if war is inevitable, if war is coming, we have to be ready."

Diyarbakir, in eastern Turkey, is home to one of the country's largest and most modern air bases. The main airfield, which sits just next to the municipal cemetery, bristles with sleek and fearsome F-16s, in addition to Apache, Cobra and Black Hawk helicopters.

Turkey's parliament voted on Thursday to allow the United States to renovate bases and ports to prepare for a war.

If an air campaign begins against northern Iraq, a lot of the coalition firepower would be launched from Diyarbakir.

"We know we are a big target for Saddam because we allow the Americans to use the base here," said Zirek. "We are easily within range of a chemical attack if Saddam wants to strike at us."

Civil defense wardens are being trained throughout the city, and engineers have quietly tested the municipal air-raid sirens. A real test at full volume, Zirek said, would cause a citywide panic.

That's how jittery things are in Diyarbakir (dee-YAHR-buh-kerr) and the neighboring town of Batman, which also has a large and important air base. People in both cities certainly know they could end up in Saddam Hussein's crosshairs. Some residents have started to put plastic sheeting over doors and windows, setting up impromptu "panic rooms" that they hope will protect them against possible gas attacks.

When putting up the plastic they use what is colloquially known here as "Saddam bant," Saddam tape.

"This term started in 1991 when people were afraid of being gassed, the same as now," said Yilmaz Serbetci, the owner of a small shop that is doing a bustling trade in the plastic and tape. "Of course, the plastic will not help in case of a gas attack. Come on, that's ridiculous. But people psychologically believe it will work. It's what they want to believe."

The city, which is predominantly Kurdish, also has been opening up dozens of bomb shelters that haven't been used in a dozen years, not since the Gulf war. The bunkers, which can hold only a few thousand people, are hardly adequate for a city of 600,000, so underground garages are also being turned into temporary shelters.

Saddam's Scud missiles did not strike at Diyarbakir in 1991, but that provides little comfort to the people here. Every Kurdish family and household seems to have some sort of connection to the Iraqi Kurds who were gassed by Saddam in Halabja.

How many gas masks does the city have ready?

"Zero," said Zirek, who knows the residents are angry over the central government's apparent lack of concern for Diyarbakir's predicament. "The people believe the government sees the Kurds as being unimportant.

Is it discrimination? Certainly. The Kurdish regions are always ignored."

City officials aren't waiting around for the Turkish government to help them out, although they confess that they're hoping to get a Patriot missile battery installed here, perhaps a loaner from NATO, the Americans or the Israelis. The Patriots that were located in Diyarbakir during the Gulf war were removed in the early 1990s.

At the city cemetery, with F-16s roaring mightily overhead, the local "hoca," or mourner-for-hire, wanders among the open graves.

"I don't live on death and I don't rely on death," said Mohammed Bazencir, 73, a retired porter who, for a small fee, will read prayers and recite passages from the Koran over the graves of the recently departed. "I pray that there is no war. I will be very happy if I am not busy."

Large sections of Diyarbakir's towering stone ramparts, built by the Romans nearly 2,500 years ago, are still intact. Below the city walls, the Tigris knits and purls its way southward, toward the Iraqi border and, eventually, into Baghdad.

Downstream, near the border town of Silopi, a tent city for possible Iraqi refugees has been built along the river. The Turkish Red Crescent Society expects some 300,000 refugees to cross the rugged mountains and seek refuge in the camp if a war breaks out.

In the Gulf war, a half million terrified refugees arrived at the Turkish border. Thousands of others didn't make it that far: They froze to death in the high mountain passes.

This time, the Turkish military has sent reinforcements to the border and into northern Iraq. The troops intend to establish a nine-mile buffer zone to prevent a similar wave of refugees from trying to reach the border.

Meanwhile, the president of the Red Crescent, Turkey's version of the Red Cross, said he has received lots of promises but no actual assistance from would-be donor agencies and nations.

"It was the same way in the `91 crisis, and after that unfortunate experience I refuse to get my hopes up," said Ertan Gonen, the retired doctor who heads the Red Crescent. "I will provide humanitarian aid because that's what we do. But I feel like I am all alone in the middle of the road with a big truck coming at me."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAQ-TURKEY

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030206 IRAQ TURKEY

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