The Kurds: Why are they causing havoc in Europe? - Why are the Turks making war on them? - Why does Saddam keep hounding them?

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The Independent Online
Who are the Kurds? Have they ever had a state?

Kurds believe they descend from Noah, whose Ark, they say, landed close to where the borders of Syria, Iraq and Turkey meet. In the Turkish town of Cizre there is a 10yd tomb said to be Noah's.

The Kurds speak a dialect of Persian. Most can communicate with each other, but there are several sub-dialects, a few of which are mutually incomprehensible. The most famous Kurd is Saladin.

They have never had an independent state. In the Middle Ages, many Kurdish princes had their own fiefdoms. The US president Woodrow Wilson promised the Kurds a state in 1918 but was frustrated by the British, French and Turks. The present federal government of Iraqi Kurdistan is the closest to a state yet. Its 3.5 million Kurds have a prime minister, a government, foreign embassies, an army of sorts, borders, even passport stamps. But they have no currency, no flag and no international recognition.

The main obstacle in the way of a state has been geography, with the population landlocked between empires in Iran and Anatolia. The steep, inaccessible valleys of their mountain homeland have discouraged unity. Their princes have often been willing to exchange independence for personal recognition by a distant protecting power, whether in Baghdad, Tehran, Ankara or farther afield.

How many of them are there and where?

There are estimated to be 20 million Kurds, commonly seen as the world's biggest nation without a state. There are more than 10 million in Turkey, 4 million in Iraq, 5 million in Iran and a million in Syria. There may be another million in the former Soviet Union.

About 400,000 of the 1.8 million guest workers from Turkey living in Germany are of Kurdish origin. There are only about 10,000 in Britain.

How do Turkish and Iraqi Kurds differ?

Despite old family ties across the border, the two groups have lived apart for nearly 70 years. Some Turkish Kurds have been assimilated. More than half of Turkey's Kurds live in the cities, where rich Kurds have all their investments.

Poorer Turkish Kurds are dominated by one rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is Marxist and wants full Kurdish self-determination in Turkey.

The Iraqi Kurds whom the West has supported are significantly richer, better educated and speak better Kurdish; they support a wide variety of guerrilla groups and parties. Most want an independent Kurdish state, but provided Saddam Hussein is removed from power, they are ready to co-operate in some federal way with Iraq, especially if oil wealth starts pouring in again.

Do Turks oppress Kurds as much as the Iraqis do?

Since the 1920s, Turkey has pursued slow, crude methods of assimilation, including the bloody suppression of rebellions in 1925 and the late 1930s. In Iraq, Saddam has used torture, mass deportations and chemical bombings that at times have come close to genocide.

In the past decade in Iraq, the state killed 180,000 people in a single cold-blooded operation. It razed 4,000 settlements, including whole towns, to the ground.

The Iraqi Kurds obtained various autonomous rights in the 1960s and 1970s, which enabled them to begin Kurdish classes at school and brought an appearance of local administration. But even in today's quasi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan, there are only four hours of tuition in Kurdish; the rest is still in Arabic.

In Turkey, nine years of civil war have killed 6,200 people, about half at the hands of Turkish security forces. Probably 1,000 villages and hamlets have been emptied by security forces, and some of them burned, to punish the Kurdish inhabitants or to prevent rebels from using them. Most civilians, caught in the crossfire between the PKK and the army, simply left.

In 1991, Turkish Kurds were officially allowed to speak their language in private, listen to Kurdish music and issue Kurdish newspapers, as they had in the 1970s (and 1900s). A Kurdish nationalist party entered the Turkish parliament. But Kurdish broadcasting is still banned and the few Kurdish cultural associations are still harassed.

For social reasons, manual labour in western Turkey tends to be Kurdish. But there is little or no discrimination against a Kurd who accepts Turkey's national ideology. The foreign minister, Hikmet Cetin, is of Kurdish origin, as are more than 60 other deputies not belonging to the radical Kurdish faction.

What are the main Kurdish political groups?

The grandfather of modern Kurdish political groups is the Kurdistan Democratic Party, founded by Mustafa Barzani in Iraq and Iran. But the Kurds have an extraordinarily fractious nature, and there are now innumerable parties. Almost all are dominated by their armed wings.

Splits are caused by ideology, tribalism and the great array of regional backers ready to pit one against another.

The only group to have insisted on full independence is Turkey's PKK.

What is the PKK? Does it have much support?

PKK stands for Partiye Karkaran-e Kurdistan. It was founded in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, a political-science dropout from Ankara University, now in his mid-forties. He is treated as a near-deity by many Kurds in south-eastern Turkey, where the PKK has proved itself virtually the only group tough enough to stand up to the Turkish government's never-ending campaigns. Few dare to speak against the group, and many youths want to join its guerrilla force, which Turkey estimates at 4,000 militants. The PKK counts 10,000.

The PKK is based mainly in Syria and started its operations in 1984. It does not hesitate to kill the wives and children of government collaborators among the Kurds, earning itself a continuing reputation for massacres.

Both Britain and the US define the PKK as a terrorist group, and help the Turkish government to fight it. For this reason the PKK does not operate under its own name in Europe, where Kurdish communities are its main backers.

But the 'Kurdistan Committees' which mounted Thursday's Europe-wide action certainly co-ordinate with the group and act as its mouthpiece.

Why are they conducting operations in Europe?

Co-ordinated attacks on Turkish institutions in Europe are not new, but have never been seen on this scale before. Two objectives are clear: to raise European consciousness about the Kurdish struggle against the Turks, and to show Turkey that if Ankara thinks that it has beaten the PKK, it has a long way to go.

A third reason is probably to try to win Western media attention before a big Turkish offensive expected against the rebels in the south-east, in the hope of stalling the attack or making the international price too high.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders issued a joint statement yesterday condemning the attacks on Turkish consulates. 'The Kurdish movement has adhered to honourable means,' they said. 'We have always stayed away from terrorism, indiscriminate violence and extremist immature activities.'

But the PKK feels a sense of mission that will not lightly be deflected, and detects sympathy for its objectives among ordinary Kurds in Iraq and Iran. Already the group is trying to stop Britons from going to Turkey on holiday. For their next step, the militants have vowed to hit tourism targets in Turkey. If they are pushed further into a corner, they may yet carry out this threat.

What about Kurdish customs and culture?

Kurdish society tends to be highly traditional and tribal, and to encourage families of 10 children or more. Arranged marriages are the norm in villages, where older, richer men tend to use their right under Islam to have a number of wives. Honour is prized above all, leading to generations-long blood feuds.

After pride in their descent from Noah, the Kurdish hero is Kawa, a mythical blacksmith who rebelled against unjust rule and founded a Kurdish kingdom.

The Kurds have a passionate and artistic reputation. They gave Turkey some of its most famous writers and film-makers, including the writer Yasar Kemal and the late Yilmaz Guney, a film maker. Music is one of the richest expressions of Kurdish culture. Its shepherd's flute and tenbur lute are unique, claims the most famous Kurdish singer, Sivan Perwer. Kurdish singers have an enormous range. 'The best can sing three octaves and go very high,' says Mr Perwer. 'I think it's the mountain air that helps.'

Epic songs by travelling minstrels traditionally tell of personal, family and tribal honour, of the lonely outlaw's camp in the mountains, of feuds and frustrated love. And some of the happy music was used to assuage grief at the funerals of young people.

(Photograph and map omitted)