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 Kurdish PKK rebel leader, Karayilan, softens tone in Turkish conflict 

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Kurdish PKK rebel leader, Karayilan, softens tone in Turkish conflict  1.1.2011  
By Steven Lee Myers, NY Times

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January 1, 2011

QANDIL MOUNTAINS, Turkey-Iraqi Kurdistan frontier, — High in the craggy mountains of Iraq’s northern frontier, where men (and, in this case, women) with guns have long operated beyond the control of any government, Murat Karayilan sounds more interested in pursuing peace than the war he has led against Turkey.

“We are not weak,” Mr. Karayilan said in an interview in this village, where he and other fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the P.K.K., represent the law of the land, despite official claims to the contrary.

“Our youths are always ready, hot-blooded and combative, but we want the Kurdish problem — as a nation’s problem, as a people’s problem — to be solved not by guns, but by dialogue.”

Many will doubt Mr. Karayilan’s sincerity, especially in Turkey. The party’s violent struggle has lasted more than a quarter-century and cost 40,000 lives. But now, perhaps more than ever before, there are indications that the war may have reached its endgame.           

“We want the Kurdish problem — as a nation’s problem, as a people’s problem — to be solved not by guns, but by dialogue.” MURAT KARAYILAN. Photo: Shiho Fukada for The NY Times.
And that has put Mr. Karayilan — either a noble insurgent fighting oppression or a narco-terrorist commander — at the center of a different kind of offensive.

He has been making the case for Kurdish rights in Turkey in surreptitiously arranged, if not exactly clandestine, interviews from his mountainous redoubt, irritating officials on both sides of the border who would rather see him fade into obscurity.

“The Kurdish people are an ancient people in the world,” he said. “All their national and linguistic rights have been denied. Our goal is to achieve those rights.”

Mr. Karayilan’s party, long designated a terrorist organization and since last year a drug trafficker by the United States, has declared a new cease-fire and already extended it into the new year. Whether by design or under duress, the party has reduced its own political demands, tempered by the profound political and economic changes that have swept Turkey and Iraq.

Mr. Karayilan no longer calls for a separate Kurdish state, but for a degree of autonomy within Turkey that is inspired by, but stops considerably short of, the federal system the Kurds set up for themselves in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003.

Iraq’s Kurdish leaders, eager to expand trade and cross-border cooperation, have supported efforts to end the fighting, offering their own model of self-determination and rising prosperity as an example. Even as officials in Turkey rule out negotiations with the party itself, intermediaries have held secret talks to discuss the possibility of a lasting peace, according to officials in Iraq and Turkey.

The presence of the P.K.K. has long been an irritant in relations, prompting cross-border raids and bombings as recently as last summer. Increasingly, though, it would seem to be a surmountable one.

“We continue to remind all: Violence will not be the way to solve this issue,” said Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq.

Iraq’s Kurds are “mindful of our relationship with Turkey,” Mr. Salih added. The experience of the Kurds within Iraq’s democratizing if not yet fully democratic system “dispels the notion that the Kurds are a destabilizing element in this part of the world,” he said.

“We don’t have to be stuck in the conflicts in the past,” he said.

MR. KARAYILAN is a garrulous man, portly but fit, mustachioed and nattily dressed in the handmade olive-gray uniform that the party’s fighters wear. His past is murky enough that the United States Treasury Department’s official terrorist designations give two birth dates for him, making him either 56 or 60.

He has been the day-to-day commander of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party since its charismatic founder, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured in 1999, tried and sent to an island prison in the Sea of Marmara.

The leadership moved to Qandil shortly afterward, and its fighters live more or less openly in what amounts to an undeclared haven. Its fighters — a large number of them women — adhere to a disciplined,
www.ekurd.netascetic lifestyle. While they have always used the mountains as refuge, the toppling of Saddam Hussein has made this much easier — to the chagrin of the Turkish government, which routinely complains to the United States and Iraq to do more to curtail the P.K.K.’s movements.

“For the first time in history, the Kurds have breathing space,” said the movement’s spokesman, Roj Welat.

Mr. Karayilan’s exact base is, of course, kept secret, but the party’s presence in the gorges around Qandil is not. Uniformed fighters maintain a checkpoint on the road from the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil, not far beyond the last official checkpoint.

The party’s flag flutters over its territory, while Mr. Ocalan’s portrait hangs ubiquitously. Mr. Ocalan remains the movement’s revered leader, but he “is not in a position to giver orders” from prison, as Mr. Karayilan put it, though his messages and writings are still circulated.

The party runs a clinic with a German doctor and a factory to make the uniforms. It neatly tends a cemetery with a 30-foot white obelisk that looms over the graves of Kurdish fighters from Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Mr. Karayilan said donations from Kurds in their homeland or abroad sustained the movement. American and Turkish officials say smuggling does. As for weapons, Mr. Karayilan smiled coyly when asked. “You can get whatever you want,” he said. “It’s the Middle East.”

The party unilaterally declared a cease-fire after an eruption in cross-border violence from 2007 to 2009. The lull has largely coincided with concessions from the Turkish government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to expand rights for the country’s Kurdish minority by, for example, allowing a Kurdish-language television station and Kurdish-language studies at universities.

Mr. Erdogan’s government has ignored the party’s announced terms for an end to violence altogether, including the release of arrested Kurdish political activists and the creation of a reconciliation commission like the one in post-apartheid South Africa. Instead the government has struck a more nationalistic tone before elections in June. Nevertheless, the government is expected to offer some new gestures for Kurds in hopes of marginalizing Mr. Karayilan’s group.

“Some of the things listed as preconditions are already part of the democratic standards by our government for all of our citizens, not only for Kurds,” said Omer Celik, a member of Parliament and one of Mr. Erdogan’s leading political advisers.

Mr. Karayilan said the Turkish government lacked the political will to pursue a true peace, though, tellingly, he did not close the door on a negotiated resolution.

He spoke for nearly two hours in a cinder-block house here in Qandil, not far from another house badly damaged by two Turkish bombs in the summer.

He traveled with only a small retinue of guards in Toyota Land Cruisers and took few other precautions. When the interview ended, he apologized for not being able to stay for dinner.

For all his polite charm, he remains strident at times, denouncing what he called Turkish occupation, oppression and genocide. But the outline of an accommodation that he sketches no longer seems so far-fetched.

He urged the United States, as well as other nations, to stop seeing the conflict through the prism of the “war on terror,” but rather through that of self-determination. “It is the cause of a nation that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Stephen Farrell and Namo Abdulla contributed reporting from Qandil, Kurdistan region of Iraq, and Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul.
  

Copyright, respective author or news agency, nytimes.com

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