Peace as far away as ever for elusive Kurdish fighters

There is no doubt the Turkish invaders are in control, but the question is what happens when they go, writes Patrick Cockburn recently in Hizawa, northern Iraq
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The Independent Online
In a white school building on a hillock overlooking the village of Hizawa, the Turkish army was seeking to improve relations with the Iraqi Kurds by offering free medical treatment.

Dr Sabhattin Nergis, in military uniform but with a stethoscope around his neck, was using the former geography classroom to treat an elderly Kurdish villager for stomach pains and high blood pressure.

High on the wall, in a corner of the room, were black and white photographs of Mustapha Barzani, and his son, Massoud Barzani, the successive leaders for over 50 years of the Iraqi Kurds' struggle for self-determination. A teacher named Abdullah Saleh, smiling nervously at the Turkish soldiers, said people in Hizawa supported Mr Barzani and his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).

It has been a bad month for both. The Turkish invasion of 20 March was as much aimed at undermining the de facto autonomy of the 3 million Iraqi Kurds as it was against the declared target, the Turkish Kurd rebels. Turkey has always been deeply suspicious of the quasi-independent Kurdistan created in Iraq's three northern provinces under US, British and French protection in 1991.

The commander of the 2,500-strong Turkish brigade which controls Hizawa and the mountains of northern Dohuk province, traditionally a KDP stronghold, is General Huseyin Erim. Asked why Turkey had not told Mr Barzani that it was going to invade, he said: "Because in 1992 [the last Turkish incursion] we told him and he told everybody else and we lost many Turkish lives."

Contrary to the belief of many observers, including Turkish soldiers, General Erim says the guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) did not know about this year's attack. He shows a soiled green notebook, the diary of a guerrilla hiding in a cave in which the last entry, for midday on 20 March, shows no knowledge that the Turks were crossing the border that day.

Nevertheless, General Erim admits he has captured just one guerrilla, though his men are constantly looking for caves and arms caches. He said he expected more PKK fighters "will come in over the next week. They cannot fight without logistics support and their morale is down. Yesterday we found a cave with rockets and mortar bombs." But he also admits that in the towering mountains and deep canyons, his men cannot find the PKK.

There is no doubt that the Turkish forces are in complete control, but the key question now is what happens when they withdraw. "That is not my problem," says General Erim. But it is a problem for the politically weak Turkish government of Mrs Tansu Ciller, which claims to have inflicted crushing defeats on the PKK over the last fortnight. If the army withdraws and the PKK simply returns in its wake - as happened in 1992 - then disappointed expectations may lead to a political backlash.

To get the Turkish army to pull out, the US is discussing with Turkey the prospect of getting the Iraqi Kurds, in the shape of Mr Barzani and his arch-rival, Jalal al-Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to keep the PKK out. This solution is attractive to Washington, which wants to keep a semi-independent Kurdistan going. But Turkey, which is essential to economic sanctions against Iraq, has made clear that it does not support autonomy for the Iraqi Kurds.

Another problem is that this idea has been tried before and failed. Iraqi Kurds do not want to join an alliance against Turkish Kurds. In Hizawa and other Kurdish villages local people wave at Turkish tanks and trucks, but this does not mean much.

A further difficulty is the civil war between Mr Barzani, who controls western Kurdistan, and Mr Talabani, who holds the east. The KDP will not allow the PUK a permanent hold on the Kurdish capital, Arbil. Given that the PUK has traditionally helped the Turkish Kurds, it is unlikely that they would be effective in preventing the PKK from re-establishing its camps.

Neither Turkish soldiers nor Kurdish villagers believe the invasion of Kurdistan - an area which has been at war for much of this century - has changed anything very much.