The Kurds are an oppressed nationality of 25 million living primarily in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. They have historically faced discrimination in all four countries based on their language and culture.
Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein was one of the most ruthless in suppressing the Kurdish liberation struggle, notorious for killing tens of thousands of Kurds during his regime. With the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and Husseins overthrow, Iraqi Kurds seized the opportunity to strengthen their own autonomous region in the northern part of the country. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was established and today Kurds enjoy the freedom to use their own language and practice their own culture there. This development has given a boost to struggles by Kurds in surrounding countries.
The autonomous Kurdish region directly across its southern border alarms the Turkish government. More than half the worlds Kurds live in Turkey, where they make up 20 percent of the population. Until 1991 it was illegal in Turkey to speak Kurdish and its use today is still restricted. The government refuses to recognize Kurds as a distinct nationality. They suffer the highest rates of illiteracy, poverty, and infant mortality in the country.
In 1984 the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Maoist group favoring protracted peoples war, opened armed struggle against the Turkish government. In response, the regime in Ankara unleashed a reign of terror in rural southeastern Turkey where most Kurds live. More than 40,000 people were killed over two decades and the Turkish army destroyed hundreds of Kurdish villages. The PKK retreated to northern Iraq.
Periodically the Turkish army has made forays into northern Iraq in an attempt to wipe out the PKK, to no avail. The armed PKK forces are estimated to still number several thousand.
In January of this year, Washington, Baghdad, and Ankara agreed to set up a command center to coordinate military attacks on the PKK. The government of Iran, which fears its own Kurdish population, regularly bombs areas along the Iraq-Iran border where Tehran says PKK guerrillas operate.
Seeking Iraqi aid to expel PKK
In a trip to Iraq in late March Turkish president Abdullah Gül called on Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, who is Kurdish, to push the PKK out of Iraqi territory.
In a joint press conference with Gül on March 22, Talabani said, The PKK has two choices: lay down its guns or leave Iraq. He said the PKK must become involved in political and parliamentary life instead of resorting to weapons, since using guns does wrong to Kurds and Iraqis.
Gül then met with the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, who is also Kurdish. Barzani subsequently told the press, We are determined, and we confirm again our territory will not be used to attack Turkey. But he also said the Turkish government should offer the PKK fighters amnesty.
The two bourgeois nationalist parties that dominate the KRGthe Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistanoppose an independent Kurdistan and favor autonomy within the Iraqi state instead. But polls show many Kurds in Iraq would prefer complete independence. The deep support for independence has made it more difficult for the KRG to move against PKK bases, although it has closed some of the groups offices.
No one has the right to tell the PKK fighters to lay down their weapons or leave the territory of Kurdistan, PKK leader Haval Roze said in an interview with Reuters. Turkey is just trying to create divisions between the Kurds.
International conference of Kurds
Talabani has issued a call for a conference of Kurds from around the world to be held in April or May in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. He stated that the conference will call on the PKK to lay down its arms. The PKK has been invited to participate in the discussions.
Leaders of Turkeys pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) were dubious about participating in the meeting because of the demand that the PKK disarm. If democratic solutions are developed, the PKK will spontaneously lay down their guns, Selahattin Demirtas, DTP vice president, told the Turkish daily Hurriyet. The steps Demirtas proposed include issuing a general pardon in Turkey, putting different cultures and identities under the protection of a constitution, and actualizing democratic autonomy, said Hurriyet.
Meanwhile, March 21 celebrations by Kurds in Turkey of Newruz (New Years) brought out as many as half a million in Istanbul and the Kurdish areas, Hurriyet reported. While previous Kurdish Newruz celebrations have been brutally attacked by police, this years were relatively peaceful.
Kurds wore their traditional clothing and danced in the streets. Among the speakers was Ahmet Türk of the DTP, who called on Ankara to negotiate with the PKK. A message was read from the platform in Istanbul from imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Numbers of people sported T-shirts with Ocalans picture or chanted slogans in his support.
Unable to repress struggle
The events were a further sign of the growing inability of the Turkish government to maintain its severe repression of the Kurdish rights struggle. In February, Ahmet Türk, who is a member of parliament, defied the ban on speaking Kurdish in that body. A broadcast of his speech on state TV was immediately cut off. But Türk was not punished. In 1991, another Kurdish parliament member, Leyla Zena, spoke in Kurdish and was jailed for 10 years.
On March 25 Col. Cemal Temizoz was arrested in connection with the Turkish militarys slaying of hundreds of Kurds in the southeast during the 1990s. Temizoz was commander of a paramilitary police unit in Sirnak province at the time. Bodies have now been found buried in wells in the area.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (ATP) has taken these steps in part to ease Turkeys entrance into the European Union.
Local elections March 29 in Turkey registered gains for the DTP despite major efforts by the ATP to gain a foothold in Kurdish areas. ATP leader and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan campaigned vigorously for the ATP mayoral candidate in the major Kurdish city, Diyarbakir, promising to double government aid for medical care, water supplies, and schools in the region.
But Diyarbakir voters turned out 67 percent for the DTP candidate, and only 31 percent for the ATP nominee. The DTP took seven other cities as well, including three previously governed by ATP mayors.
Some 10,000 people, many of them youths, celebrated outside the DTP party headquarters in Diyarbakir. Some chanted slogans in support of Ocalan and the PKK.
Others disagreed. A 37-year-old taxi driver named Cemal told Hurriyet, These pro-DTP Kurds are looking for an independent state, but they are daydreaming. We will all starve if this war goes on. I have a wife and kids and what I care about is the bread I can earn for them. Thats why I voted for the ATP.
After an economic boom earlier in the decade, Turkey now has an official unemployment rate of 13.6 percent.
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