Caught Between The Iraq Embargo...And A Kurdish Quagmire

Like many businessmen in southeastern Turkey, Sadik Yigit can't wait for the U.N. to lift its ban on trade with Iraq--even if renewed commerce helps bolster the cash-strapped regime of Saddam Hussein. "Saddam is a maniac and everyone would like to see him gone, but the sanctions are hurting us more than him," says Yigit, owner of a roadside restaurant in Midyat, about 80 kilometers northwest of the Iraqi border. Before the embargo, imposed in 1990 after Saddam invaded Kuwait, Yigit's restaurant was full of hungry truck drivers. "Now, there's hardly any traffic through here," and the place hardly earns enough to stay open, he says. Other businesses have succumbed: Boarded-up storefronts are a common sight along Midyat's main road.

Many Turks see themselves as the gulf war's real loser, since the sudden shutoff of Turkey's biggest prewar trading partner has contributed mightily to the near-collapse of the Turkish economy, which shrank 6% last year. Ankara reckons that the U.S.-led sanctions have cost Turkey more than $20 billion over the past four years. Although Turkey still officially supports and enforces the U.N. sanctions, Ankara has quietly taken steps to ease the pain. It's common knowledge that, since September, up to 600 Turkish trucks a day have been allowed to slip across the border, swapping flour for Iraqi diesel fuel. At its peak last year, this illegal trade was bringing in 152 million liters a day, analysts say.

ILLEGAL DRUGS. The sanctions have further crippled what was already a ravaged economy in the southeast: The overwhelmingly Kurdish region is the focus of an 11-year-old war between the separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish government. The conflict has claimed at least 15,000 lives, while more than a million refugees from thousands of destroyed villages have fled to cities across Turkey. On Mar. 20, Prime Minister Tansu Ciller sent 35,000 Turkish army troops into northern Iraq in an effort to prevent the Kurdish guerrillas from using that mountainous terrain as a staging point for raids across the border.

In southeastern Turkish cities such as Diyarbakir, where refugees have tripled the population to about 1.3 million in the past five years, there is little work for the newcomers, mostly farmers. The city's biggest factory employs just 150 people. Add the widespread feeling that Ankara is deliberately neglecting the region, and it's easy to see why it has become a fertile recruiting ground for the PKK, not to mention assorted radical Islamic organizations. Smuggling of heroin and other drugs also flourishes here, making southeast Turkey a transit point for an estimated 70% of all the illegal drugs entering Western Europe. Ankara "keeps promising to invest in this area once the fighting is finished," says Ahmet Elhakan, president of the Diyarbakir Young Businessmen's Assn. "But the war may never end if the economy doesn't improve."

To be sure, Turkey's Kurds want a lot more than economic attention. Turks like to say the country's 12 million Kurds--about a fifth of the population--enjoy the same rights and opportunities they do, but most Kurds say Turks treat them as second-class citizens. Until recently, they point out, they were forbidden to speak Kurdish in public. Many Kurdish children are still required to adopt Turkish names. "We can only have equal rights if we have our own country," says one of thousands of destitute Kurdish refugees living in a complex of shabby apartment blocks outside Diyarbakir. "Turks want to finish our culture. Our PKK brothers in the mountains want to finish the Turks as our boss."

Despite a year of diplomatic and military setbacks, including the recent loss of its important raid-staging bases in northern Iraq, the PKK retains broad backing among southeastern Kurds. Although there are signs that its founder, Abdullah Ocalan, better known by his nom de guerre, "Apo," may be sending out peace feelers from his hideaway in Syria, the government has renounced negotiations with terrorists. The daunting likelihood is that the war will continue for years in Turkey's mountainous southeast before it can be concluded by peace talks.

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