New Targets, Old Conflicts
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New Targets, Old Conflicts
09/05/2006 - Time (cir. 4,034,061) ž Return to Top
After years of clashing with the Turkish military, Kurdish separatists are targeting civilians. Now Turkey, and the U.S., are plotting their response
BY ANDREW PURVIS
When four consecutive bombs shook two of Turkey's sun-drenched Mediterranean coastal resorts last week, it was, quite literally, a blast from the past. Turkish authorities attributed the strikes, which left at least three dead and dozens injured (including 10 British tourists), to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (P.K.K.), a Kurdish separatist group that reached the height of its power some two decades ago.
If it is responsible, the P.K.K. is back with an ominous bang. Once one of Turkey's most potent terrorist organizations, the P.K.K. fought a 15-year war with Turkish security forces throughout the 1980s and '90s that left some 30,000 dead. Declaring a cease-fire in 1999 only after the capture and imprisonment of its charismatic leader, Abdullah Ocalan (known to Kurds simply as "Apo"), the group, numbering several thousand, retreated to the mountains of northern Iraq. There, its members abjure worldly goods and alcohol, practice strict gender equality (though sex between members is not allowed), while rising early to pore over left-wing political tracts.
While they fought originally for a "free Kurdistan" for all Kurds, lately they have limited their demands to improved rights for Turkey's Kurdish minority and an amnesty for P.K.K. fighters: "We want to be acknowledged," Zubeyir Aydar, the head of Kongra-Gel, the P.K.K.'s political wing, said. "Everything after that is negotiable." In 2004, after calling off its cease-fire, the group waged an escalating guerrilla war against Turkish security forces. It has bolstered its arsenal with plastic explosives and other munitions acquired from the Iraqi military after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Despite Turkish authorities' claims, the P.K.K. denies involvement in the bombings at the seaside towns of Antalya and Marmaris. Another Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (T.A.K.), has claimed responsibility. Considered a P.K.K. offshoot, the T.A.K. boasted in a written statement that "we have promised to turn monstrous Turkey into hell," with "more actions, bigger blows." Aydar told Time last week that the P.K.K. and T.A.K. differ in their underlying philosophies and do not collaborate on operations: "We are not responsible for what they do."
Whether masterminded by the core P.K.K. or a splinter group, the bombs mark a troubling departure in tactics. They are the first by the P.K.K. or any of its offshoots to target civilians and tourists on such a scale in recent years, threatening an $18 billion tourism industry. "We are facing an al-Qaeda–like terrorist gang," an editorial in the newspaper Hurriyet said the next day. "[They] take not only people's lives, but also their jobs and the bread from their hands."
The blasts could provoke a change in thinking in how to deal with the P.K.K. Turkey had been urging the U.S. to help root out the group from northern Iraq. Last week Washington finally responded by naming retired General Joseph Ralston, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, as a special anti-P.K.K. coordinator. Ralston has close contacts with the Turkish military and will set up a "tripartite" group between Turkey, Iraq and the U.S. designed to ensure that "the P.K.K. cannot conduct terrorist activities," according to a U.S. State Department spokesman. Ralston is expected to travel to the region later this month.
Exactly what shape the initiative will take is not yet clear, although some kind of military response by Turkish forces seems likely. Even before last week's bombings, pressure was building on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Administration for a more forceful answer to the P.K.K. threat. Scores of Turkish soldiers have been killed in skirmishes with the group; more in some recent months than U.S. troops killed in Iraq.
In recent weeks, the conflict has threatened to spill over into northern Iraq, one of the last tranquil areas in that country — a fact that may have caught the U.S. military's attention more than the bombings on the Mediterranean coast. Authorities inside Iraq have reported that P.K.K. positions around the Kandil Mountains have been shelled by Iranian and, possibly, Turkish artillery. In July, Turkey moved tanks and reinforcements up to its border with Iraq.
Turkey's new army chief, General Yasar Buyukanit, who took office last week, is known for his hawkish views on how best to deal with the P.K.K. "Turkey has never been face-to-face with this much armed separatist terrorism," he said at his handover ceremony in Ankara. "Our state, nation and security forces will eliminate this threat."
Until now, the U.S. has urged Turkey to keep its troops out of northern Iraq so as not to foment a broader war with Iraqi Kurds, who are not currently aligned with the P.K.K. Some Turkish TV and newspaper commentators last week saw Ralston's appointment as an indication that the U.S. was ready to take on the P.K.K. in Iraq unilaterally, as some Turkish politicians had been demanding for years. But there's little chance of that, says Henri Barkey, a former U.S. State Department official who now teaches at Lehigh University
He says the U.S. is too tied up elsewhere in Iraq to open a new front in the north. More likely, Turkey will be permitted to take matters into its own hands, though not necessarily by sending troops across the border. "I think the U.S. would give a wink and a nod if Turkey were to take limited military action ... General Ralston is going to hold Turkey's hand," says Barkey, "not solve the problem."
The P.K.K., meanwhile, claims not to be worried about the U.S.'s new interest in its affairs. P.K.K. political chief Aydar says that "if [Ralston's] approach is in favor of a military solution, we will oppose it ... But I doubt it will be." He argues: "The Kurds are an ally, a people on [the U.S.'s] side, why would they want to take them on?" The P.K.K.'s real enemy, says Aydar, is Turkey. And Turkey, he says, is spoiling for a fight: "Their statements smell of blood and bullets." As for the resort bombings, Aydar says the P.K.K. "absolutely" condemns them. "Our approach is only to use violence ... within the boundaries of the Geneva Convention." But he also acknowledges that the P.K.K. will likely suffer a backlash from the attacks, whether they ordered them or not. The and T.A.K., he says, do have one thing in common: a desire to improve rights of ordinary Kurds. "I cannot speak on [T.A.K.'s] behalf," he says. "But I do believe that if Turkey takes some steps to address the Kurdish issue, they would stop these attacks."
Maybe. But Turkey has already taken some steps to improve Kurdish rights as part of its efforts to gain entry to the European Union. And oved in on the one-year anniversary and it was almost as if the hurricane had hit again with the replay of the horrifying images from New Orleans after the hurricane hit," Lule said. "What was missing, in my view, was a real thorough look at what still needs to be done."
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said she thinks that coverage of the Katrina anniversary Tuesday helped remind many outside the Gulf Coast that the recovery is far from complete. But speaking from experience after the 2001 terrorist attacks downed the World Trade Center in her city, Maloney said getting the nation to pay long-term attention is a major challenge.
As a result, she said, New York's fight to get the federal government to provide the full $20 billion in financing initially promised by the Bush administration, for help testing for potential health hazards and federal aid for volunteers who suffered serious medical problems years after they helped with the World Trade Center site cleanup, were pretty much news stories covered in New York alone.
"I can tell you now, five years later, as we approach the anniversary on Sept. 11th, we are still working to ensure that the $20 billion commitment is reached," said Maloney, who along with other New York congressional members wrote to the Louisiana delegation shortly after Katrina hit last year with suggestions on how to mount the long-term battle needed to get adequate federal resources.
Promoting volunteer efforts
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said the anniversary observance, which brought Bush and 25 House Democrats to New Orleans, helped focus the nation's attention on the challenges ahead. She hopes the extended anniversary media coverage will not only keep pressure on the Bush administration and Congress to continue to finance the recovery and fix some bureaucratic obstacles to recovery, but also persuade Americans to take a personal stake in the rebuilding effort.
"I will continue to encourage people to take a few days away from their lives, if they possibly can, and come down and help us," she said. "There are so many families that are of limited means, many of them elderly, who can really use a hand. I can assure them it will be life-changing experience."
Robert Goodwin, president and CEO of the national volunteer group the Points of Light Foundation, predicts that volunteers will continue to flock to the Gulf Coast, even if the story slides from the front pages.
He's hoping publicity over a new version of the 1979 Sister Sledge hit "We are Family" will help. Goodwin, Sister Sledge and other performers appeared on NBC's "Tonight Show" on Thursday night to publicize the song and talk about the continuing desperate needs of Gulf Coast communities.
Counting on revenue sharing
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said that it will "take the entire Louisiana delegation" working together to keep the needs of the Gulf Coast before Congress and the American people, now that the anniversary has passed. The first priority, she said, is agreement between House and Senate negotiators on an Outer Continental Shelf drilling bill, which would provide Louisiana with a share of royalty payments to finance continued hurricane protection projects and wetlands restoration.
Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-Kenner, agrees, calling the revenue-sharing negotiations, which should begin soon after Congress returns next week from a summer recess, critical.
Passage of a revenue-sharing bill, he said, would ensure that the state's needs are met "even if the country's attention runs out before our needs run out."
During his visit to New Orleans on Tuesday, Bush endorsed revenue sharing for Louisiana, although aides have said he favors the Senate version over a more-generous House-passed bill.
Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, said the recent visit by Democratic lawmakers made a real difference because they got to interact with a wide variety of state residents and officials and learn firsthand some of the bureaucratic and financing obstacles to recovery. "They came away with a real commitment to help and get legislation moving," Jefferson said.
The media's coverage, he said, helped to show America that New Orleans still has a long way to go on the road to recovery.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 383-7861.