Kurdish Ties Strengthen Across Iraq-Turkey Border
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The government of Iraqi Kurdistan announced over the summer that it will no longer fly Iraq's national flag. Kurdish leaders say the flag - unchanged since the fall of Saddam Hussein - is a symbol of repression. That move angered the Baghdad government though, because it is weary of Kurdish separatism. And it also prompted complaints from neighboring Turkey. Turks are concerned about their own Kurdish minority.
The rising tension between the Turkish government and Iraq's Kurds has done little to stop the recent growth of economic and cultural ties between Kurds on both sides of the border. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from southeastern Turkey.
IVAN WATSON: The latest public spat between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds erupted when Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani warned that his people might support opposition groups in neighboring countries like Turkey if they did not stop meddling in Iraq's internal affairs.
Turkey's prime minister called that statement ugly, while other Turkish officials again warned the Iraqi Kurds to stop making moves towards independence.
Mr. MEHMET DULGER (Chairman, Foreign Affairs Committee): There will be a federation in an Iraqi republic. It would not be a problem. But if it will be a seed of independence, we don't accept it.
WATSON: Mehmet Dulger is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Turkish Parliament. He says the countries of the region - which all have ethnic Kurdish minorities of their own - would unite to oppose the creation of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
Mr. DULGER: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey would be against of the creation of Kurdish state there. And it will disturb very much all the Kurdish people existing in these four countries.
WATSON: To this day, Turkish officials refuse to speak of an Iraqi Kurdistan. And they object to the title of Kurdish Leader Massoud Barzani who is called the president of Iraqi Kurdistan. Faruq Loalou(ph) recently retired after serving as Turkey's ambassador to Washington.
Mr. FARUQ LOALOU (Retired, Ambassador, Turkey): I think it is quite clear that Mr. Barzani tries to make a point and then he calls himself this, when he tries to fly another flag in his "region" in quotation marks.
WATSON: Turkey is prickly about Iraq's Kurds because it is home to the largest Kurdish population in the region, and it has been fighting its own Kurdish separatist movement called the PKK - a conflict that has claimed hundreds of lives this year alone.
For years, the Turkish military pursued these PKK guerillas into the mountains of northern Iraq where the rebels have established camps. In recent months, both Turkish and Iranian forces have repeated shelved PKK camps in Iraqi territory. But Turkish hardliners like Uktay Veral(ph) of the Nationalist Movement Party charge that the Turkish government is not doing enough to fight the PKK in Iraq.
Mr. UKTAY VERAL (Nationalist Movement Party): If United States has right to combat with al-Qaida - coming to Iraq, combating with terrorism, I have the right to combat with terrorists in northern Iraq.
WATSON: Veral says many Turks fear that one day, the Kurds of northern Iraq will claim territory in southeastern Turkey - traditional homeland of Turkish Kurds.
Mr. VERAL: In the northern side of Iraq, there is a tendency to have an independent Kurdish state which are claming boundaries which are in Turkey.
WATSON: In the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, many Kurds have watched the rise of their counterparts across the border with admiration.
Mr. BODDOM BOSIER(ph) (Leader, Kurdish Nationalist Party): I am motivated by (unintelligible).
WATSON: Boddom Bosier is a leader of a new Kurdish nationalist party in Diyarbakir which enjoys support from Iraqi Kurdish strongman Massoud Barzani. Bosier says he wants to create a Kurdish autonomist region in Turkey modeled on the existing one in neighboring Iraq.
Mr. BOSIER: They aren't under torture and pressures. They can express themselves. They have free parliament, and they have educations with Kurdish language.
WATSON: So far, this is only a fringe movement, but other ties between Kurds on both sides of the border are growing. Fardajima Pasha(ph) is a Turkish/Kurdish businesswoman from Diyarbakir whose construction company did $40 million worth of business in Iraqi Kurdistan last year. She hopes that one day economic ties will overcome the political tensions between Ankara and northern Iraq.
Ms. FARDAJIMA PASHA (Businesswoman, Diyarbakir: (Through translator) They cannot stop this because there is trade and common interest. When there is common interest, (unintelligible).
WATSON: But Turkish citizens appear divided over Iraqi Kurdistan, and those divisions tend to fall along ethnic lines.
At this truck stop in Diyarbakir, an argument broke out between Turkish and Kurdish truck drivers who have all worked extensively across the Iraqi border.
(Soundbite of men arguing in foreign language)
WATSON: When you cross the border gate, a Turk named Regeb Bolat(ph) complains, the sign doesn't say welcome to Iraq. It says welcome to Kurdistan. A Kurdish driver responds, saying, so what? It's their land, he argues, and they have a right to establish a state there.
Ivan Watson, NPR News, Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey.
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