Turkey seeks arrest of rebel commanders
( AP ) - The jailed chief of Turkey's Kurdish rebels remains a powerful symbol for fighters who revere him with a personality cult. But the guerrilla lieutenants who plot tactics from bases in northern Iraq are coming under increasing scrutiny as Turkey presses Iraq and the United States for their arrest.
They include Murat Karayilan and Cemil Bayik, veteran commanders of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, who may have authorized recent attacks that pushed Turkey close to ordering a cross-border offensive against rebel shelters in Iraq. Another prominent rebel is Fehman Huseyin, believed to be the top field commander of the PKK's military wing.
On Monday, President Bush met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington and promised him that the United States would share military intelligence in the hunt for PKK rebels. Turkey credited U.S. help in the 1999 capture in Kenya of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK who is now serving a life sentence on a prison island in Turkey.
Without providing names, the Pentagon also has said 10 PKK members are in a U.S. "most-wanted" database, meaning American forces have had standing orders for some time to pick them up if they are found. Citing Iraqi officials, Turkish media have said Turkey delivered a list of 150 alleged PKK members to Iraq and demanded their extradition.
The PKK, which launched guerrilla warfare in 1984, started out with a Marxist ideology mixed with Kurdish nationalism, but it later softened its demands and dropped the idea of an independent homeland. The rebels now say they seek more rights for Turkey's Kurdish minority, which lives primarily in the country's southeast and in immigrant communities in large cities.
The United States and Europe label the PKK as a terrorist organization. Turkey dismisses the group as a murderous gang and refuses to negotiate with it.
Ocalan drew comparisons with Stalin for his harsh control over the group, often killing or imprisoning members who deviated from his edicts. His presence still permeates the PKK, which displays his image on banners and demands his release, though factions developed as commanders debated whether to seek war or peace. Ocalan's brother, Osman, was a PKK leader who quit the group several years ago.
Other individuals accused of being PKK decision-makers are Duran Kalkan, Riza Altun and Zubeyir Aydar, a lawmaker ejected from the Turkish parliament in 1994.
The leadership council of the PKK is based at Mount Qandil, which straddles the Iraq-Iran border and is 60 miles from the frontier between Iraq and Turkey. It has links with organizers in Europe who provide funds, allegedly through illegal activities such as drug-running.
Some suspects have traveled extensively in Europe, angering Turkish authorities who say countries there should do more to restrict rebel activities among their large Kurdish populations. And in recent months, PKK commanders have spoken to foreign journalists who travel to their sanctuaries, triggering criticism of Iraqi leaders for their failure to crack down on the group.
Karayilan, a PKK leader in his 50s who wears an olive green uniform, is a key figure in the current tension over whether Turkey will attack rebels in northern Iraq despite U.S. and Iraqi calls for restraint.
On Sunday, shortly after the PKK released eight abducted Turkish soldiers, Karayilan delivered an appeal directed at the United States for a peaceful solution to what he called the "Kurdish question." But because of the PKK's terrorist label, the guerrilla commander's plea was unlikely to win the international recognition he seeks.
Aliza Marcus, author of a book titled "Blood and Belief: the PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence," described Karayilan as an experienced military fighter and more of an independent thinker in an organization where anyone who opposed Ocalan risked ostracism or death in an internal purge.
"He can see sort of two steps ahead," Marcus said. "The other guys are more 'yes' men. They're not people who can think outside the box."
Turkey believes Karayilan has virtually run the PKK since Ocalan, who sets the tone for the rebel group with appeals for peace and Kurdish rights, gave consent to the guerrilla leaders to determine operational details on their own because he cannot do so from his cell.
Ocalan delivered a message through his lawyers last week in which he said the PKK leadership at Mount Qandil "should not act under orders from anyone; it should make its own decisions itself," the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency reported.
Bayik, another longtime leader of the PKK, attended its inaugural congress in 1978 and was named deputy secretary general. Testimony during Ocalan's 1999 trial referred to Bayik's presence in training camps in Lebanon and Syria, and to his role in transferring money to the PKK from Europe. He is also believed to have spent time in Iran.
Huseyin, a Syrian Kurd also known as "Doctor Bahoz," is in charge of the People's Defense Forces, the armed wing of the PKK. Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper reported in January that Huseyin gave a speech to PKK members at that time in which he exhorted them to follow orders from commanders and repeatedly reminded them that they were at war.
Hurriyet said the speech was in Kurdish, but was translated into Turkish for broadcast over wireless radios. The Turkish military sometimes intercepts rebel communications and leaks their contents to Turkish media.
"He's one of the younger guys, he's not a member of the leadership council," said Ali Koknar, a Turkish security consultant based in Washington. "He has proven himself in combat."