Letter from Diyarbakir

Quote President George W. Bush: «As modern Greece celebrates the anniversary of its independence, won 181 years ago, Greeks can be proud that its vibrant democracy continues and that it is based upon the beliefs in freedom and self-rule first forged in classical Greece over 2,500 years ago.» Unquote. That was exactly one year ago. It was on the occasion of Greek Independence Day last year that the president of the USA made this proclamation («Ancient Greece was the birthplace of the democratic principles and thought that fundamentally shaped the growth of democracy in world history,» etc., etc. Gee, thanks, White House speech-writers.) honoring mainly the more than 3 million Americans who claim Greek heritage. One year later, on the day when the Greek War of Independence is being celebrated for the 182nd time, there is a war in Iraq which has been raging for the last five days and also a «war within a war» for «independence from the Turks,» just as in our case on March 25, 1821. Hell, in the first case it is not such an easy war as it originally seemed. In the second, you can see that although the Kurds haven’t contributed much to historiography, they have contributed much to excuseography. It now seems certain that maps and political regimes will be redrawn. Who knows whether the Greek tradition of representative government will be respected. I am writing this from Dedeman Hotel, in Diyarbakir ( population 2 million) – a drab city on the banks of the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey, the closest large Turkish city to northern Iraq. The place is famous for its sweet melons and gigantic watermelons – yet both are now out of season. This region was known as a tense place during the Kurdish separatist troubles of the 1980s and 1990s, with the guerrillas from the Marxist Kurdish People’s Party (PKK) based along the Turkish-Iraqi border. Related to the Kurds of northern Iraq, Turkish Kurds find themselves, once again, facing an uncertain future, with the Americans vowing to bring about the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad. It took us almost 12 hours, with stopovers, to fly from Thessaloniki to Diyarbakir – via Athens and Istanbul – last Saturday. During the flight Mehmet Ali Birand, Turkey’s star-columnist, instructed me from the Turkish Daily News: «Seen from Turkey’s standpoint, the most important aspect of the Iraq operation is that the the operation will carry the Kurdish problem into entirely different dimensions…» When the Middle East was remapped after World War I, the Kurds were split between Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. Since 1991, the 4 million or so Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq have enjoyed quasi-independence under the protection of a Western air umbrella which kept Saddam’s forces at bay. Presently they are worried that the Turks will try to invade their territory. They point to the repression suffered by the 13 million Kurds within Turkey, where the army has killed an estimated 30,000 and displaced up to a million people. «Turkey is worse than Saddam,» they say. However, on the same day, last Friday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said, «We don’t see any need for any Turkish incursions into northern Iraq.» Turkey insisted and sent a vanguard of commando troops on M-113 armored personnel carriers into northern Iraq. Sure enough, Turkey has claimed it did not go beyond a «buffer zone» of some 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) into northern Iraq; however, voices in Ankara insisted, «We would go deeper if we see our national interests threatened.» Turkey is clearly alarmed at the possibility of a Kurdish state and also at the possibility that Iraqi Kurds might seize the oil – the resource-rich region of Kirkurk to the north – to give that state an economic basis. That might tempt the 13 million Kurds living in Turkey to try to secede. Christos Tellidis, a Greek correspondent currently in this region, made an interesting point: «Imagine the northern Iraqi Kurds’ income rising to $7,000-8,000 in the future. How would that look to Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin with an annual income of some $300 to 500?» And a Turkish colleague added skeptically: «From now on there will be no references to the ‘Kurdish problem.’ Instead, the ‘Kurdish presence’ will be on the agenda.» Piece by piece, the public enemy of a Kurdish state is taking shape. Ankara seems determined to stop such a plan at any cost – even creating tension in its relations with Washington – and it seems to consider that it is «now or never» that it will put an end to such arrangements. On the other hand, the Kurds (estimated to be some 20 to 25 million strong, and the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East), having missed their best-ever chance for freedom in 1918, when President Woodrow Wilson’s supported them and the British, French and Turks were against – now see «their» March 25 approaching. Not unlike the Greeks in the first months of 1821, the Kurds see the present war in Iraq as an ideal opportunity for their own war of independence. However, the United States sees rather a «war within a war» – that is, clashes between Turkish troops and local Kurds, as something that could disrupt the US-led campaign. A couple of days ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was unusually blunt in his advice to Turkey. «We have special forces units connected to Kurdish forces in the north… and you can be certain that we have advised the Turkish government and the Turkish armed forces that it would be notably unhelpful if they went into the north in large numbers.»

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