By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 20, 2007
SILOPI, Turkey, July 19 -- Soldiers guarding the heights of Turkey's Kurdish southeast have long used their vantage point to deliver messages to the restive population below, plopping whitewashed stones onto the hillsides to form terse admonitions, such as: "Motherland above all."
Lately the Turkish troops' messages for the Kurds have grown sterner and longer. Outside Silopi, an outpost on the ancient Silk Road from China and now a border town along the Turkey-Iraq frontier, one spills down the yellow grass of the steppe, in rows of letters each the size of a man:
"We are resolute and motivated against struggles threatening the unity that is the ancient heritage of our motherland."
The reason for the Turkish military's tougher tone toward the country's Kurdish minority lies just a few more mountains south, across the border in northern Iraq. There, Iraqi Kurds under the protection of occupying U.S. troops are flourishing under their own increasingly assertive Kurdish government, strengthening their Kurdish militias, flying their Kurdish flags.
Turkey's government charges that Iraqi Kurdish leaders are tolerating the presence of a Kurdish separatist movement that has killed about 70 Turkish soldiers this year.
Many Turks say the growing security threat posed by the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by the initials PKK, is the top issue in Turkish parliamentary elections set for Sunday.
"America broke the Iraqi state. There is no way to rebuild it. As a result, there is a Kurdish state that protects the PKK," Nejat Eslen, a retired Turkish brigadier general, said in an interview at his home in Istanbul this week.
Nationalist political parties, riding a wave of public unease over intensifying attacks by the PKK and the rise of Kurdish nationalism in northern Iraq, are expected to gain seats Sunday. Such gains would mean more support in parliament for a cross-border offensive against the PKK in northern Iraq.
Turkey's military last month created what it called a security zone in the wedge of Turkish territory jutting between Iran and Iraq, an area that has experienced decades of clashes between the PKK and Turkish troops.
All sides agree that Turkey is deploying additional troops in the zone, but none agree on how many.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders, fearing invasion, alleged this month that Turkey had assembled 140,000 troops in the security zone.
Bush administration officials called the figure exaggerated. Turkish journalists in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir with experience in the border area estimated that the Turkish deployment in the main stretch of border had roughly doubled, to perhaps 50,000.
No major troop movements were visible during a visit to the security zone this week -- only the occasional unmarked white van or civilian bus shuttling shaven-headed young men in civilian clothes back and forth from military installations. Because most Turkish troops are out of sight in mountain bases, it is difficult to gauge troop strength.
Turkish soldiers at temporary checkpoints stopped each passing vehicle, untying cords on bundled belongings in the trunks of cars and throwing back the covers on trucks to scrutinize cargo.
The young conscripts spoke politely and kept their rifles in their hands but pointed down, reflecting the discipline of Turkey's military.
Only a few travelers in battered sedans and the occasional truck made their way up and down the canyon roads in the heart of the security zone. The army checkpoints and mines laid by the PKK dissuade most civilians.
Kurdish villagers went through far worse in the 1990s, when fighting between Turkish forces and PKK guerrillas left bodies in the streets. Skirmishes in the mountains since then have taken a toll on young fighters from local families and army conscripts from the west.
Kurds accustomed to military occupation were hard-pressed to identify signs of a buildup.
"The noise of helicopters taking the soldiers on night operations is waking us up more," said Mahmet Selim Basan, the deputy mayor in Selcan, a town between peaks in the security zone. A Turkish military base clung to the hillside directly over Selcan, overshadowing the narrow streets.
A few hours before Basan spoke, a PKK bomb killed two Turkish soldiers outside Selcan. A few hours after, Turkish artillery fired more than 100 shells into northern Iraq in retaliation, according to Iraqi Kurdish militias.
Iraqi Kurds say Iran and Turkey for years have fired sporadic artillery barrages and mounted cross-border raids against PKK camps in northern Iraq.
Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party has held firm against the calls by Turkey's commanders for a more substantial attack on Kurdish northern Iraq. The party's stand is expected to cost it seats in Sunday's elections, but polls show the party hanging on to its majority.
Nothing big is likely to happen before or even after the elections, said Omer Taspinar, a Brookings Institution scholar in northern Iraq and a Turkey specialist.
Turkey's military appears to be jangling its sabers at least in part in hopes of attracting the attention of U.S. commanders, Taspinar and others said. But the U.S. military -- unwilling to open a front in the Kurdish north, the most peaceful area in Iraq -- has refused to act against the PKK in northern Iraq or give Turkey the green light to do so.
"What is Turkey going to do, fight Americans in Iraq? Fight pesh merga?" Taspinar asked, using a Kurdish term for militiamen. "That's not realistic."
Turkey's military probably would be satisfied if Iraqi Kurdish leaders took even limited action against the PKK, he said.
Watching from the Turkish east, many Kurds doubt it is the PKK driving the Turkish military's aggressive stance toward Kurdish Iraq.
"The Turkish military's objective is not the PKK. The objective is to lay down obstacles against a new Kurdish state," said Basan, the Kurdish deputy mayor in Selcan. He recently served 3 1/2 months behind bars for delivering a greeting in Kurdish during a public speech.
Many other leaders of villages and towns here give similar accounts of prison time for violating Turkish restrictions on the Kurdish language and Kurdish cultural practices. Turkey has long maintained that all ethnicities in Turkey are Turks alone and has worked to assimilate minorities.
But these are changing times for Kurds, even in Turkey. In one southeastern village this week, the leader of Turkey's main pro-Kurdish political party talked of Turkish fears and Kurdish hopes over the table of his hometown cafe.
Women with head kerchiefs looped below their chins in traditional Kurdish fashion hauled babies and goods in the streets outside while Kurdish men gossiped.
"The Turkish state sees Talabani and Barzani become leaders, and they can't accept that. They can't accept the status of Kurds in Iraq," said the politician, Ahmet Turk of the Democratic Society Party, referring to two prominent Iraqi Kurdish politicians. "They see all Kurds as potentially dangerous."
''The Kurdish issue can be resolved democratically, peacefully, but the Turkish state always chooses the way of violence" against Kurds, he said.
Kurdish candidates are expected to win a bloc of two dozen to three dozen seats in parliament Sunday for the first time, having come up with a new tactic to get around prohibitions against Kurdish political parties.
Kurdish campaign rallies were a high-wire act for candidates this week. Speakers walked the fine line between rallying Kurdish pride and courting arrest with even the mildest show of Kurdish nationalism.
"Don't say any slogan except the official slogan! Don't wave any flag except the official flag!" the master of ceremonies yelled at a rally that drew tens of thousands of Kurds in Diyarbakir on Wednesday.
Some were undeterred. "In all countries of the world there is freedom to show the flag," said one woman, wrapping herself in a silky swatch of red, green and yellow, the colors of Kurdish parties in northern Iraq. "We want that freedom, too."