CIZRE, Turkey—The prospect of Saddam Hussein's end sparks unease along Turkey's 218-mile border with Iraq, a region just recovering from a 15-year civil war that left more than 30,000 dead.
Ethnic Kurds are a majority in this southeastern corner of Turkey. A state of emergency imposed on their region by the government in Ankara in 1987 was lifted just last November, and Kurds still cannot learn their language in public schools or even watch television in their tongue.
Now the war in Iraq is stoking the coals of Turkey's long-standing ethnic conflict with the Kurds. The Turkish military has warned repeatedly that it would invade to quash any effort to establish a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Kurds fear the Turks would use any unrest in the region as a pretext to intervene and oppress Kurdish Turks, whom they mistrust.
"Turks look at this place as a ticking time bomb," said Ersel Aydinli, a political scientist at Bilkent University outside the Turkish capital.
Kurds contend that the Turkish military is training paramilitary squads made up of 1,500 ethnic Kurds to operate in northern Iraq once Saddam's government falls. The forces reportedly are being trained on military bases in and around Cizre, near the border with Iraq, where Muslims believe Old Testament figure Noah is buried in a 15-foot tomb.
Talk of paramilitary forces, or death squads, is difficult to confirm or deny in a region dominated by rumor and fear—and a military that never talks about its actions. Since the 1980s the Turkish military has openly armed and trained on its bases the Kurdish "village guards," who fought separatists seeking an independent state called Kurdistan.
Human rights groups accuse some of the 90,000 village guards of operating death squads, and abuses committed by the guards and the military in the southeast were highlighted in the State Department's annual Human Rights Report released March 31.
Human Rights Watch on March 26 issued a statement calling on Turkey to "not deploy to northern Iraq any paramilitary groups" like those responsible for killings and disappearances in the 1990s. It voiced concern about the Lightening Group, a squad of guards reportedly being trained now.
"Turkey has a bad record of violations against civilians while battling rebel Kurds in southeast Turkey," Elizabeth Andersen, the group's executive director for Central Asia, said in a statement March 26. "It needs to be taking precautionary steps today, to make sure its troops don't commit repeat violations in any operations it undertakes in northern Iraq."
When Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Turkey on April 1, he tried to calm Turkish concerns by saying the United States does not support an independent state for Kurds, who live in parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In exchange, he was assured that Turkish troops would not be sent into northern Iraq unless Turkey's security was clearly threatened.
Local Kurds fear that paramilitary forces will be doing the bidding of the Turkish military instead.
"The United States will let Turkey enter into northern Iraq with paramilitary forces," said Mustafa Karahan, head of the Diyarbakir office of the Democratic People's Party, known by its acronym Dehap. Diyarbakir is the largest Kurdish city in the southeast, and Dehap is Turkey's largest Kurdish political party. Kurds make up about 20 percent of Turkey's population of 68 million.
Turkey's powerful military does not discuss its operations and keeps much of southeastern Turkey in a near-lockdown state.
"Report only what you see," cautioned a soldier at one of numerous military checkpoints. To assist in war coverage, Turkey has established press centers in southeastern cities, and foreign journalists are told they are free to roam the southeast.
Their freedom is limited, however. Reporters cannot get near many bases or the nine-mile buffer zone north of the Iraqi border established in 1997. Turkey keeps at least 5,000 men posted along the buffer zone. A British Broadcasting Corp. reporter was kicked out of Turkey this month for airing video obtained from restricted areas. Reporters have been turned back for seeking access to villages destroyed in the 1990s or other remote areas.
Secret police and informants are another problem, Kurds say. One Kurd in Cizre, who asked not to be identified, told of kinsmen paid $1,000 and sent last month into Iraq to report on Kurdish separatists there.
The man suggested reporters look for village guards in the nearby Cudi neighborhood.
Locals there are clearly unhappy with questions about village guards. One well-dressed man who clearly carried authority and shooed away onlookers said grimly, "You shouldn't ask those questions here."
The village guards, he said, were "off on operations."
He suggested the reporters leave.
On the way out, a man in a suit appeared, unusual for an area that is in some places knee-deep in mud. He approached the translator and said, "I heard you were asking questions about village guards. Did anyone point you to one? Did anybody give you a name?"
Perhaps the man was with the secret police or an informant. Perhaps he was a henchman for chieftains called Aga (pronounced Aah), who control the smuggling of drugs, arms and people across the Iraqi border.
There was nothing ambiguous about his final question, however: "Are you leaving now?"
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TURKURDS