Whenever his schedule allows, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani leaves his presidential bunker in Baghdad to spend time on Lake Dukan in the mountains of his Kurdish homeland. It is a paradoxically idyllic refuge in a half-destroyed country, a place where yellow sandstone villas are reflected in the waters of the dammed Little Sab River, where children play in paddleboats, and where the president and his guests can enjoy a vast, panoramic view of the wilds of Kurdistan. US cabinet secretaries and diplomats rave about their visits to Lake Dukan. It is also a place where a number of important decisions have been reached.
But hardly any of them have applied to Talabani's peculiar neighbors, who have pitched their tents in the Kandil Mountains, 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the north: the militias of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which have been embroiled in an on-again, off-again struggle with the Turkish government for more than 20 years.
The PKK has its base camp near the small city of Raniyah, and about 15 villages in the surrounding area are under the group's control. There are two checkpoints at the base of the Kandil Mountains, where men and women armed with Kalashnikovs guard the 50-square-kilometer (19 square miles) camp. Those allowed access to the rebels are confronted with a consistent message of bellicosity. If Turkey attacks, PKK commander Murat Karayilan says, "we will take the war into their cities."
'We Make Decisions on Our Own'
He's already managed to take the struggle across the border into Turkey. The number of PKK attacks in Turkey has spiked in recent months, resulting in the deaths of numerous Turkish soldiers and local militiamen in southern Anatolia. Earlier this month, a PKK unit that snuck across the Iraq-Turkey border killed 12 Turkish soldiers.
Turkey, not surprisingly, is not happy and has demanded that President Talabani and Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who runs the semi-autonomous northern Iraqi regional government, eject the Kurdish troublemakers from Iraq. Otherwise, Turkey has said, an invasion may be imminent. Indeed on Saturday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his intention to go after the PKK if necessary. "Whenever an operation is needed to be carried out, we will do that," Erdogan said in a speech before a crowd in the western Turkish city of Izmit. "We do not need to ask anything from anyone for that. Some (countries) might have other wishes, but we make our decisions on our own."
It is not an idle threat. Turkey deployed 100,000 troops, supported by tank brigades, to its border with Iraq last week. Turkish jets bombed PKK positions, penetrating deep into Iraqi territory to do so. Its artillery guns were also fired across the border repeatedly.
The horrified international community realized that another armed conflict could be brewing in what is already one of the most explosive regions of the world. Iraq is still teetering on the brink of civil war. At the same time, archenemies Iran and the United States are increasingly at odds over Tehran's nuclear program, while the Palestinian conflict continues to smolder. And then there is the threat of a Kurdish war on Iraqi soil -- and perhaps even elsewhere. A branch of the PKK, the "Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan," is fighting Iranian government forces in Iran's Kurdish provinces. Some of the group's operations are also based in northern Iraq, where it has the support of the United States -- a tricky proposition given that the US, along with the EU, considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization.
Brewing Kurdish Conflict
The effects of the new crisis are already becoming apparent. Global oil markets responded with new record prices to the threat of war in oil-rich northern Iraq -- until now, one of the country's most peaceful regions. The second conference between Iraq and its neighbors, which meets this week in Istanbul and was originally convened to discuss reconstruction and resolving the conflict in Iraq, will in fact be a crisis meeting to address the brewing Kurdish conflict.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will arrive early to meet with Turkish officials eager to hear what offers she might be bringing from Washington. As a minimum, they are hoping for active US support for a limited military campaign in northern Iraq. Washington's diplomats only managed to convince Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to postpone the military offensive by promising to cooperate with Turkey in its fight against the PKK. Erdogan's scheduled meeting with US President George W. Bush in Washington on Nov. 5 is widely considered to be the final deadline before Turkey invades northern Iraq.
Pressed by the United States, the Iraqis also promised to take action against the PKK. At the beginning of the crisis, Talabani was defiant, insisting that he would "turn over not a single Kurd to Turkey, in fact, not even a Kurdish cat." But the government in Baghdad has since changed its tune, announcing that it would close the PKK office in the Iraqi capital. "We have asked them to leave our country," said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who is also a Kurd. But Iraq's weak central government has little influence in the Kurdish north.
Apo and His Supporters
The PKK, established in 1978 as a revolutionary movement for an independent Kurdish state, has re-emerged on the global stage like a ghost from the past. After the sensationalist arrest and sentencing of its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in 1999, the separatist organization seemed to have lost steam. With its founder, affectionately referred to as "Apo" by his supporters, being held on the Imrali prison island near Istanbul, the PKK saw itself forced to agree to a cease-fire. But because the Turkish government has consistently refused to negotiate with the PKK and continues to pursue its activists, the group resumed its attacks in 2003.
From its safe haven in Iraq, the PKK can both attract international attention and do as much harm as possible to the Turks. If the Turkish army were to retaliate with full force, Ankara would find itself isolated once again. "Then the world would see us as a brutal and aggressive power that attacks civilians and oppresses the Kurds," warns Turkish civil rights activist Orhan Cengiz.
Last Chance to Avoid War
The EU has expressed its sympathy with Turkey, saying that the country must "protect itself against acts of terror." But opponents of EU membership for Turkey are just waiting for a Turkish invasion of Iraq as an excuse to demand a halt to negotiations. This is why many Turkish critics warn against marching into the trap they say has been laid by the PKK, which they claim wants to draw Turkey into the quagmire of the Iraq war.
Militarily speaking, the PKK may be strong enough to repeatedly provoke the Turkish army, but it has come under fire politically and is fighting for its survival. In Turkey's July parliamentary elections, hundreds of thousands of Kurds voted for Erdogan's conservative Islamist AKP, which has improved the situation in Kurdish regions in eastern Anatolia by instituting reforms and providing financial assistance.
The Kurdish party DTP, some of whose activists are closely aligned with the PKK, did poorly in the election -- a sign of just how out of touch the PKK is with the Kurdish people.
The PKK leadership's reaction to Erdogan's election victory bordered on panic, as Assos Hardi, the editor-in-chief of Awena, a news magazine for northern Iraq, confirmed on the Iraqi side of the border. "Nothing less than Kurdish nationalism is at stake for the PKK," says Hardi, adding that this helps explain why the PKK has suddenly become militarily active again. "In an effort to reestablish the old battle lines, the PKK leadership seeks to portray the Turkish government as being just as pig-headed as the hated Turkish army."
Dedicated to the Cause
Despite the announced closing of the PKK offices, Kurdish politicians in Iraq remain undecided over how to respond to the fighters. They remain popular, at least in northern Iraq, where Kurds respect the fact that no one is making comparable sacrifices to further their dream of an independent Kurdish state, and that no one is as defiant of the Turks as "Apo's" indefatigable guerillas.
This sentiment explains the admiration with which Kurds in northern Iraq continue to view the PKK's founder. "We are Apoists," says Faik Gulpi, 52, the head of the political arm of the PKK in Iraq. Gulpi, a surgeon, says that he "amputated many legs" during his fellow Kurds' struggle against the soldiers of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He testified as a witness in the trial over Saddam's gassing of the Kurds. Even after a decades-long guerilla war, Gulpi remains dedicated to the cause.
"Öcalan's word is what counts," he says. "Only he and the PKK represent the interests of our people. All others allow themselves to be humiliated by Ankara."
Gulpi, whose group has repeatedly clashed with the established Kurdish parties in northern Iraq, Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, has been imprisoned several times -- but has always managed to be released. He owns a large house in downtown Sulaymaniyah, a city in the Kurdish Autonomous Zone of northern Iraq.
Turkish troops marched into northern Iraq a number of times in the 1990s to teach the PKK a lesson -- with the consistent support of northern Iraq's Kurdish parties. Barzani was rewarded for his services with a Turkish diplomatic passport. His family has lucrative business ties to Turkey, and he is said to be skimming off a fair share of the funds collected at the Habur border crossing. It would be a financial blow to Barzani if Turkey were to make good on its threats to impose economic sanctions and close the border.
'Our Neighbor or Our Target'
In the past, northern Iraq's Kurds needed allies against Saddam. But today they are hesitant to take too tough a position against the PKK. Their principal aim is to secure independence. Barzani's objectives are also primarily nationalist at this point. He is already embroiled in a bitter dispute with Turkey over Kirkuk, a major oil-producing center. Barzani wants to incorporate Kirkuk into the region he controls, but Turkey, which sees itself as a protector of the city's Turkmen population, opposes the idea.
The postwar order in Iraq is one of the issues behind Turkey's threat to invade the region. "The PKK is the current problem," says Turkish journalist Ilnur Çevik. "But Turkey is also afraid of a strong, independent Kurdish state developing in northern Iraq. Hilmi Özkök, the former commander-in-chief of the Turkish armed forces, warns that Barzani must make up his mind: "Either he is our neighbor -- or our target," he says.
Diplomatic efforts appear to have gained the upper hand, at least for now. But as long as the nonstop shuttle diplomacy -- undertaken by the likes of Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan -- fails to produce concrete results, an armed conflict in northern Iraq remains a distinct possibility. "We need tangible results," says Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül. "Our boys are dying."
One of the tangible results Turkey is hoping for is the extradition of PKK leaders, especially Murat Karayilan. A member of the PKK leadership for many years, Karayilan is viewed as one of the organization's toughest commanders in its fight against the Turkish army. Turkey also wants Iraq to extradite Kadri Çelik, the man who allegedly led the PKK attack into Turkey earlier this month that claimed the lives of 12 Turkish soldiers.
Even Erdogan, who actually has little interest in invading Iraq, warns: "We cannot wait forever. In the end, we will reach a decision based on our own interests, not those of the United States."
Meanwhile, a wave of nationalist fervor has gripped the Turkish people. "We are all soldiers, we want weapons," demonstrators called out last week at a rally on Istanbul's Taksim Square. In the northwestern Turkish city of Bursa, demonstrators chanted: "We are not afraid of the dogs of Apo Öcalan." Hundreds have signed up for military service in recent weeks.
The mood was so heated that the government imposed a temporary ban on stories about the deaths of the 12 soldiers. Nationalist politicians have blasted the Kurdish party DTP which holds 20 seats in the Ankara parliament. "While we hunt down terrorists in the mountains, their supporters walk around in our city halls, universities and even in the parliament," ranted Devlet Bahçeli, the head of the nationalist MHP.
Sebahat Tuncel, a 32-year-old member of parliament for the DTP, went straight from prison to parliament. She was in detention awaiting trial for eight months on charges of supporting the PKK. "Someone denounced me and claimed that I had attended a PKK convention -- but that isn't true," says Tuncel. A lawyer and land surveyor, Tuncel gained immunity from prosecution as a result of her election. She was released and returned triumphantly to Istanbul.
The DTP is under growing pressure to finally distance itself from the PKK fighters and condemn their acts of terror. But this is difficult for Tuncel. "We are part of Kurdish society. Many of our voters have sons and daughters who are fighting in the mountains," she says. The DTP, which seeks a peaceful end to the conflict, is calling for an amnesty for PKK fighters as part of a political solution.
"As long as soldiers are dying, this is out of the question," says Fuat Keyman. A political scientist, Keyman is one of a group of more levelheaded Turks who, despite the current military buildup, wants to see efforts continue to develop a political solution to the Kurdish problem. The government must finally put together a comprehensive plan for the development of the Kurdish southeast, says Keyman. Sönmez Köksal, the former head of Turkish intelligence, believes that the military alone cannot bring about a solution. "The government must expand the rights of the Kurds," says Köksal. "This is the only way to marginalize terrorism."
That effort could succeed. Turks and Kurds alike are victims of the PKK's attacks, and many Turkish Kurds serve in the military. When the PKK captured eight Turkish soldiers last week, Turkish newspapers printed a photo of the grieving mother of one of the men. The soldier's mother -- like the kidnappers -- was a Kurd.
Translated from the Germany by Christopher Sultan