Another Iraq invasion?

Political tensions boil in Turkey as thousands call for war against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, and the White House scrambles to stop it.

Published October 24, 2007 10:09AM (EDT)

The mood in Turkey is becoming increasingly jingoistic as thousands take to the streets, calling for war against the Kurdish rebel organization PKK and an invasion of northern Iraq. But Baghdad has promised to curb the Kurds.

Anger drives them onto the streets, anger provoked by the images of dead soldiers shown on Turkish television. Thousands of demonstrators walk along Istiklal Caddesi, or Independence Avenue, Istanbul's longest shopping street. They are calling for war: war against the Kurds, against the PKK, against Iraq. "We have waited long enough," reads one poster. "Allah wants this war," is the message on another.

People have been protesting throughout the country since Sunday evening, after it was revealed that rebels from the Kurdish separatist organization the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) had killed 12 Turkish soldiers in eastern Turkey. It is mainly young people who take to the streets, with Turkish flags in their hands, whistles in their mouths and hatred in their eyes.

"We have waited long enough," says Erkan, a young car mechanic from Istanbul. "It's time to strike." His face is pale and his right hand is clenched in a fist. "We are all Turks, we are all soldiers!" he calls. Many of the demonstrators sympathize with the right-wing youth organization the Gray Wolves. Their message to the Kurds is clear: Admit you are Turkish, or die.

The PKK, which has bases in the mountains of northern Iraq, has been fighting for decades for an independent Kurdistan. But the attacks of recent weeks were the heaviest in a long time. Last Wednesday, the Turkish parliament approved -- by an overwhelming majority -- a measure that clears the way for a military incursion into northern Iraq.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still hesitating, though, not least after the personal intervention of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But Erdogan said Tuesday that Turkey couldn't wait indefinitely for the Iraqi government to act against the PKK. "We cannot wait forever," he said during a visit to the U.K. for talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. "We have to make our own decisions."

Brown said Britain was working with Turkey on "all efforts that are necessary so that terrorists cannot move from Iraq into Turkey." The U.K., like the U.S., is keen to stop Turkey from invading northern Iraq, fearing the destabilization of the region.

Diplomatic efforts continued elsewhere Tuesday as Turkish forces massed on the Iraqi border. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan met with Turkish leaders in Baghdad to press them to crack down on the PKK. "We ... don't wish our historical and friendly ties with Iraq to be ruined because of a terrorist organization," he said at a news conference after meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

Zebari, for his part, said Baghdad would "actively help Turkey to overcome this menace." But Babacan rejected any offer of a cease-fire by the PKK. A cease-fire is only "possible between states and regular forces," he said. "The problem here is that we're dealing with a terrorist organization."

Aside from international diplomacy, though, many demonstrators in the streets are calling for war -- now. Even among liberal Turks and university students, the mood is edgy. Many believe Turkey has allowed itself to be provoked by the PKK for long enough. "Erdogan shouldn't allow himself to be pressured any longer, we need to invade Iraq," says 23-year-old political studies student Ayla. "The Kurdish problem cannot be resolved through diplomacy alone."

In the cafeteria of Istanbul's Bilgi University, one of the country's most prestigious schools, students hand out Turkish flags and black ribbons. "We want to express our sympathy for the dead soldiers," says Gözde, one of the campaign's initiators, and hits the table with her fist. "I ask myself how many Turks still need to die before our government finally does something about it." "Nobody wants war," adds fellow student Metin. "But if that's the price of security, we have no other choice."

There are still voices of reason warning against a military attack, however. The northern region of Iraq inhabited by Kurds is the only largely peaceful area in the war-torn country. "If the Turkish army crosses the border, northern Iraq will fall into a maelstrom of violence," says Dursun Tüyloglu, a lecturer in politics at Bilgi University.

According to Tüyloglu, over the last few years, the Turkish government has started to give extra support to the country's economically weak eastern part. As a result, during the most recent parliamentary elections, more than half of the Kurds there voted for Erdogan's ruling AKP party. "The PKK is losing its grass-roots support in Turkey, and they know it," he says. "That's why they are bombing their way back into the spotlight."

In his opinion, every time a soldier is killed, the pressure on Erdogan's government increases.

Turkish actor Ozan Ayhan is sure of one thing: "A war in Iraq would only profit the PKK." The terrorists can't be beaten with weapons, he says. "We have to appeal to moderate Kurds."

The reverse is true for now -- the mood in Turkey is overheated. On Sunday evening the street demonstrators in Istanbul wanted to storm a Kurdish neighborhood called Talabasi. The police managed to hold them back.

Emrah, 26, grew up in Diyarbakir, a Kurdish stronghold in southern Anatolia. He studied economics in Mersin and wants to find work in Istanbul. "I'm afraid," he says. "I don't know what's going on in this country." Lately he's suffered more and more abuse: "People who were my friends just a few months ago won't talk to me anymore."

Emrah had a job interview at a bank last week. When he said he came from Diyarbakir and was Kurdish, he received a withering look. "I work hard, but no one is giving me a chance," he says.

He lights a cigarette and pulls on it in hurried drags. "War would just make everything worse."

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon.

By Maximilian Popp

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