Film Comedy Highlights Turkish-Kurdish Tensions

Film fans in Turkey have made the comedy The Masked Five in Iraq a box-office smash. But the film reflects historical mistrust and hatred between Turks and Iraqi Kurds.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A new movie tops the box-office chart in Turkey - "The Masked Five in Iraq." It's a Turkish-made political comedy about five criminals who try to claim the oil in northern Iraq for Turkey. The film reflects the historical distrust and hatred between Turks and their neighbors - the Iraqi Kurds.

NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul.

IVAN WATSON: The movie opens in the badlands of northern Iraq, where American soldiers and Kurdish militiamen are posted side by side, guarding an oil well inside a small U.S. fort.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Masked Five in Iraq")

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of bird cawing)

WATSON: One night, five bumbling Turks dressed in stolen military uniforms seize the fort and its guards. They then send a ransom video to an American Army general, demanding that northern Iraq's oil be shared with Turkey.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Masked Five in Iraq")

Unidentified Man #1: Get me the president.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: In this movie, it's the Iraqi Kurds - not the Americans - who are the bad guys. The main Kurdish character is a fat, gun-toting coward who betrays everybody as he greedily tries to get control of the oil.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of cartoonish spring sound)

WATSON: After watching the film, a 15-year-old Turkish schoolgirl named Pinar Shesle(ph) said she thinks the portrayal of the Kurds is right on the mark.

Ms. PINAR SHESLE (Schoolgirl): (Through translator) He was exactly like what he would be: a double-faced hypocrite.

WATSON: Turkish columnist Junay Dulciver(ph) says when Turks talk about Kurds, it's not uncommon to hear these kinds of racist stereotypes.

Mr. JUNAY DULCIVER (Turkish Columnist): They stab you from behind. They are never trustworthy, and they change sides very easily.

WATSON: That negative image extends to Turkey's own rebellious population of some 14 million ethnic Kurds, but also to the more than four million Kurds living in Iraqi Kurdistan - the semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq.

Professor DOWU AIRGYLL(ph) (Political Scientist): They are constantly depicted as conspiring against Turkey's interest.

WATSON: Professor Dowu Airgyll is a political scientist who has long studied Turkish/Kurdish relations. He says politicians and media have instilled a deep-seated fear in Turkish society of the emergence of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.

Prof. AIRGYLL: It's not the fear of the Kurds in Iraq. It's the fear that Turkey's Kurds can imitate the Kurds of Iraq and try to carve out a Kurdistan of their own within Turkey. That's the fear. That's the root of the fear.

WATSON: This fear, along with the rising tide of Turkish nationalism, have helped fueled a debate in recent months on whether or not Turkey should intervene militarily in Iraq Kurdistan. Again, Dowu Airgyll.

Prof. AIRGYLL: Because it's an election year, it's good, macho talk.

WATSON: The Turkish saber rattling has got Iraqi Kurds worried.

Mr. FOUAD HUSSEIN (Chief of Staff to President of Iraqi Kurdistan Region): Of course we are worried about these kinds of statements, and we are not happy about it.

WATSON: Fouad Hussein is chief of staff to the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region. He offers some not-so-subtle advice to Turkish generals.

Mr. HUSSEIN: Perhaps it is easy to enter a war, but it is difficult to get out of war. You see, we are not saying we can defend our cities. But we can defend our country.

WATSON: Out on the streets of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil, men like real estate agents Hider Ali(ph) and Pishti Wannabilla(ph) are quick to say they would take up arms against a possible Turkish invasion.

Mr. HIDER ALI (Real Estate Agent): (Through translator) Used to be just like our enemy.

Mr. PISHTI WANNABILLA (Real Estate Agent): (Through translator) Turkish are racist and very dirty people. They cannot live with any nation or ethnic groups.

WATSON: So far, this mutual animosity hasn't gone beyond trade disputes and frequent Turkish Internet hack attacks against Kurdish government and media Web sites. But political scientist Dowu Airgyll worries about the future of Iraq's Kurds, particularly if they go ahead with plans to annex the Iraqi city of Kirkuk with its large community of ethnic Turkmens. Kirkuk also straddles enormous oil fields.

Prof. AIRGYLL: I believe that after the American military presence ends or weakens in Iraq, there could be a Kurdish massacre if the Kurds want the cake and to eat it all.

WATSON: Last week, the Turkish parliament held a closed-door session to debate future policy on Iraq. According to Turkish law, the details of the discussions are to be kept secret for the next 10 years. But analysts here say one of the measures likely to have been discussed was whether or not to send Turkish troops across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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