Life for Kurds in northern Iraq is about to get a lot more complicated.
The Turkish army has begun massing troops on Iraq’s northern border in an effort to combat the Kurdish armed group the PKK.
In the last week, the Turkish government has sent about 40,000 troops to southeastern Anatolia, bringing the total troops stationed near the Iraqi border to an estimated 250,000 (close to double the number of U.S. forces in Iraq).
The buildup represents the largest number of Turkish soldiers deployed to the region since Turkey captured guerilla leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. After that, Kurdish fighters declared a unilateral cease-fire, and approximately 5,000 cadres withdrew into a base in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Since then, they had given up on an independent Kurdistan and instead hoped political dialogue could bring additional civil and cultural rights for Kurds in Turkey. But the Turkish government stubbornly refused to give Kurds any kind of minority rights. Preachers remain barred by law from giving their sermons in Kurdish, and public schools are forbidden to teach Kurdish children in the language of their ancestors. According to Human Rights Watch’s annual report for 2006:
“Turkey’s courts and state officials repeatedly obstruct language freedoms. As of November 2005 not a single private broadcaster had been given permission to broadcast in Kurdish. In June the Ankara governor refused to authorize the Kurdish Democracy Culture and Solidarity Association (Kürt-Der), claiming that the organization’s program ‘to secure the social and individual rights of Kurds’ was unconstitutional. In July the Bingöl governor imposed a U.S.$800 ‘administrative fine’ on local Human Rights Association (HRA) President Ridvan Kizgin for printing the association’s letterhead in Kurdish as well as Turkish, supposedly a breach of the Associations Law requirement that correspondence be exclusively in Turkish.”
In reaction to this inaction, PKK guerillas called off their cease-fire last year, launching bombings in major Turkish cities and attacks on Turkish army units stationed in the Kurdish-populated southeast. That’s brought more state repression from the Turkish government, whose units killed at least 13 Kurds earlier this month at funerals for PKK rebels.
It was in this atmosphere that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Ankara Tuesday. Rice made no mention of Turkey’s human rights record and instead tried to placate the Turkish army.
“We obviously also are sharing information. The U.S. was active in helping in the past with the PKK, and we will be active in the future,” she said.
Rice’s statements are understandable given the number of ways Turkey could hobble Iraq if its leaders aren’t satisfied. If Turkey closed its border with Iraq, the Iraqi economy would be paralyzed. More than half of all goods and services come into the country through Turkey. When Turkish truckers went on strike last year, Kurdish officials inside Iraq were forced to enact severe rationing programs.
Beyond that, even an invasion is possible. Before Rice’s visit, the commander of Turkey’s armed forces, Gen. Hilmi Özkök, was asked if his military would ask for permission from Washington before crossing the border into Iraq. “We cannot make a decision of that kind based on the USA,” he said. “Every country is sovereign. Every country makes its own decisions. If the conditions change, you act by the changing conditions.”