Iraqi Kurds fear Turkish motives as troops mass

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DAHUK, Iraq, Oct 28 (Reuters) Three PKK soldiers emerge from an orchard and stride up a road in northern Iraq. Locals in a passing pick-up truck offer them a lift and they clamber in, just a few hundred metres (yards) from a police checkpoint.

In the mountain communities of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan it's clear there is sympathy for the Kurdish fighters, who are battling for a homeland in Turkey just as an older generation of Iraqi Kurds fought for their rights during Saddam Hussein's rule.

Iraq's Kurds did eventually succeed in carving out a largely autonomous region which, unlike the rest of Iraq, is safe, developing economically at a heady pace, and where the Kurdish language and traditions rule.

And most people here believe Turkey is now massing troops near Iraq because it wants to invade and snuff out this Kurdish revival -- for fear it will spread and gain traction across the border.

''Politically, the PKK is the short-term goal, but the long-term target is the Kurds, because they don't want them to have a separate country,'' said Asia Ahmadkiled, 56, who is a member of the Kurdish Alliance in Iraq's parliament in the capital Baghdad.

''I can say that the Kurdish people, the young people, are motivated and will be willing to defend their country if Turkey crosses the border,'' she said, sitting in her house in the northern Kurdish city of Dahuk.

The PKK took up arms in the early 1980s and Turkey has been trying unsuccessfully ever since to oust them from this mountainous region in a conflict which has killed 30,000 people.

Under growing pressure at home to stop the PKK's deadly attacks, Turkey has massed up to 100,000 troops on Iraq's border and has been regularly shelling and bombing suspected PKK positions in northern Iraq.

The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq says it has no control over the PKK and cannot flush them out of their remote mountain hideouts, or force them back across the border.

Talks between Iraq and Turkey to find a diplomatic solution ended in stalemate yesterday and there are fears the Turkish military will attack northern Iraq in force in November, despite frantic international manoeuvres to stave off conflict.

DOOMED TO FAILURE Few in Dahuk said they expected the talks to succeed. They see the PKK as a pretext for Turkey to crush Iraqi Kurds as they strive to build a successful economy in their own territory.

''The Turkish government is afraid because they don't want the Kurds to have their own independent country,'' said Mahdi Kasim Ibrahim, sipping tea and reading the morning headlines.

''Whatever the Iraqi government offers to Turkey will be useless, they won't agree,'' he said.

Turkey said on Friday it had launched 24 limited incursions into Iraq targeting PKK positions in recent days. And Turks again marched through the streets, calling for tougher action.

Many villagers in northern Iraq have deserted their homes near the border and the scars of bombing can be seen on hillsides: grey, dusty craters in scorched fields, shards of shrapnel scattered on the earth, smashed rocks strewn across mountain paths.

Both Iraqi and Turkish Kurds say they hope war can be avoided as it will simply lead to loss of life and hurt the economy on both sides of the border.

Some hope diplomacy will win the day and don't want to see a repeat of the bloodshed they experienced in the 1990s when Kurdish parties in Iraq battled amongst themselves for power.

Some think the harsh winter that's looming will dissuade Turkey from attacking now. But only until spring, because the government will need to act to maintain popular support, and because the PKK wants a war to build its own political power base in northern Iraq.

Others put their faith in Washington to prevent a conflict that could throw the region into chaos and jeopardise its attempts to bring some measure of stability to the rest of Iraq.

One Turkish Kurd truck driver who regularly ferries cement into Iraq warned attempts by his country's armed forces to defeat the separatist guerrillas were doomed to failure.

''Turkey won't be able to remove the PKK because we are all PKK -- the Kurds are PKK,'' he said, before he jumping into his cab and headed back to Turkey.

Reuters SKB RS1422

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