by Gretel C. Kovach
(PNS) ZAHKO, Northern Iraq --
Turks are coming to northern Iraq it seems, but
the Kurds say they won't let them in without a fight.
Military preparations by both sides in recent weeks are fueling fears that a civil war among America's friends could erupt on the northern front of a conflict in Iraq. Recent announcements by Turkish officials appear to confirm the Kurds' worst fears -- that Turkish forces will cross into northern Iraq with or without American oversight.
Already there are unconfirmed reports of shooting between Kurdish fighters and Turkish soldiers based in northern Iraq.
Turkey had planned to send tens of thousands of troops across the border with American forces, ostensibly to corral and care for fleeing refugees, but Iraqi Kurds say the real plan is to occupy their lands and disarm their people.
"Turkey will not come here to assist the refugees or anyone. They want to disarm us, to defeat us. They are not willing for Kurdish people to have their rights," says Ibrahim Khalid, a 25-year-old pesh merga, or Kurdish fighter, from Bersive.
His village nestled in the mountainous border was occupied by the Turkish army for six weeks in March 1995, when 35,000 Turkish soldiers battled Kurdish militants who had fled across the border from Turkey.
The Bersive villagers bitterly recall how Turkish soldiers rounded them up in the schoolhouse and patted down both men and women, looking for arms. Some young men were beaten with sticks and taken away with tires restraining their arms, never to return.
"We are ready to face the Turkish military and fight if we need to, if they come here without America's permission. We know that they are stronger than us. But we are afraid our citizens, our families will be killed," Khalid said.
Officials from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which governs the western half of Iraqi Kurdistan, are more diplomatic, but just as willing to fight. "Turkey is our friend, so far," Gen. Babekir Zebari told reporters in Dohuk last week. But if Turkey tries to disarm the Kurdish pesh merga, "this will be the main reason to fight."
Zebari added that Turkish intervention would encourage similar moves by Iran and Syria. "They will rape our international borders if they enter. This is unacceptable. We know how to fight, we are used to fighting," he said, noting that the KDP and their counterparts in the east, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, have a combined force of about 120,000 soldiers.
Iraq's Kurds are hoping that America will restrain its Turkish ally. "We trust America," said Jassem Mahmoud, 35, also from Bersive. "America is more merciful than Turkey. They treat us like human beings."
Meanwhile, both Kurdish and Turkish forces are beefing up their border presence.
There's a new sandbag bunker in Zahko, a smugglers town in rebel-held northern Iraq, but the frontlines aren't facing toward Saddam Hussein.
About 5,000 of their pesh merga soldiers deployed recently to the Iraqi-Turkish border, ready to "face death," as their name implies, down the turret of a Turkish tank, KDP officials told reporters.
On the mountain road skirting the border inside Iraq, Turkish soldiers have been busy refurbishing several bases they established there in the mid-1990s.
In addition, at least a half dozen new tank positions line the road east of Zahko. They are easy to differentiate from Kurdish military -- the Kurds don't have tanks.
The Turkish-KDP partnership that led to the basing rights soured in recent months, primarily over Turkish fears of Kurdish autonomy.
Turkey has said it will invade if Iraqi Kurds attempt to form their own state. Turkey fears the move would encourage the 13 million Kurds in Turkey to seek autonomy.
Iraqi Kurds, under pressure from America, insist that they merely want a federal Iraq that would enshrine their freedom without threatening Iraq's territorial integrity or that of its neighbors.
Tensions eased somewhat when Turkey refused to allow America to launch a ground invasion across the Turkish border, but a Turkish spokesman announced this week that Turkey would link American military activity to Turkish troop penetration of Iraqi territory. A senior U.S. official quoted in the New York Times said on Tuesday that Turkey plans to go even farther -- reserving the right to enter Iraq unilaterally if need be.
Human Rights Watch warned that such a move by Turkey would likely lead to widespread human rights violations. In a March 5 briefing, Human Rights Watch reported that Turkish forces violated international humanitarian law during their past incursions in northern Iraq, and were responsible for torturing, killing, and "disappearing" their own Kurdish citizens.
"If Turkish operations in northern Iraq bear any resemblance to those in southeastern Turkey, we can expect to see a human rights disaster," said Elizabeth Andersen, a Human Rights Watch official.
In the last month, both Turkish and KDP officials have accused each other of being "worse than Saddam." A Kurdish protest banner hanging on the Iraqi side of the border crossing with Turkey reads "No to Saddam. No to the Turkish military invasion."
Still, even Bersive residents agree that Saddam is a singular tyrant. When asked, "Who are you more afraid of, Turkey, or Saddam?" The answer is, "Oh Saddam of course," said Shereen Amar, 20.
"Saddam, Saddam," agrees Hajjar Suleiman, 32. "Because we suffered so much from him."
March 19, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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