Despite the climate of violence in certain regions of the country, the democratic process is continuing and a new era is now opening in Iraq. Thus, following the election, on 6 April, of Jalal Talabani as Iraqi President with an overwhelming majority of 228 members of the National Assembly out of 275, the long persecuted (especially under the Saddam Hussein regime) Kurds attain the highest offices of the State for the first time in the history of modern Iraq. Seventy-year-old Jalal Talabani and his two Vice Presidents, the Shiite Adel Abdel Mehdi and the Sunni Arab Ghazi al-Yawar, took the oath of office on 7 April in the Congress Hall in the Baghdad green zone.
In his inaugural speech, Mr. Talabani extended his hand to the Iraqi insurgents, offering them an amnesty so as to “give them a chance” to rehabilitate themselves in the new Iraq, “I swear before God All-mighty to fulfil the functions and responsibilities incumbent upon me to the best of my ability, to preserve the independence of Iraq, to defend the interests of its people, of its skies and its land and the democratic federal system” declared the new President, taking his oath on the Qoran. “(I swear) to work to preserve public and private liberties as well as the independence of the judiciary to apply the law with justice. Let God be witness of what I have just sworn”, concluded this veteran resistant against the central power of Baghdad.
Addressing the House, Mr. Talabani declared: “I promise you to do everything in my power to deserve your confidence”. “I will listen to your proposals and carry out your decisions and take part with all my strength in the establishment of a democratic regime, that it may guarantee freedom for all and uproot the criminal terrorism, corruption and the racist ideas of (Michel) Aflak” he added. (Editor’s Note: Michel Aflak was one of the founders, and the main theoretician, of the Baath Party, of which Saddam Hussein was a member.) A storm of applause greeted these words. Then this historic fighter for the Kurdish cause found the right words to re-assure the Arab majority, and particularly the Sunni minority that had lost the power they had monopolised for decades. “We must work to bring Iraq back to civilisation, to its Arab and Islamic environment, and to ensure that this country become a real partnership of nations and an example of freedom, democracy and national unity to liberate the nations of the Near East from tyranny and dictatorship”, the new Head of State affirmed vigorously. He called for “balanced relations” with neighbouring countries, which he called upon to “treat Iraq with respect, not to interfere in its internal affairs nor to help the terrorists who are waging a war of extermination against the Iraqi people”.
Immediately after the swearing in ceremony, and as agreed between the Kurds and Shiites, the Presidential Council appointed Mr. Jaafari, who comes from the Shiite majority in Parliament, as Prime Minister. “From what we know of your courage, your competence and your fairness, the Presidential Council has decided that you shall be the Prime Minister and you must begin to chose the members of your Cabinet in accordance with the law” Mr. Talabani said in addressing Mr. Jaafari. Regarding the insurrection, whose attacks continue to bathe the country in blood, Mr. Talabani extended a hand to the Iraqi rebels, considering it necessary to “find a political and peaceful solution with those Iraqis who have gone astray into terrorism by granting them an amnesty” and by “inviting them to take part in the democratic process (…)”. On the other hand he considered that “it was necessary forcibly to repel the criminal terrorists who are coming from abroad and are allying themselves with the Baathist criminals”.
There were scenes of popular rejoicing in all the towns of Kurdistan. For many Kurds, who have been enjoying considerable autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan for the last 14 years, this day marked a special moment, after decades of persecution by Arab governments, which wanted to subdue this unwavering people. “What has happened today allows me to think that we can transform this country of tyranny and racial discrimination into one of equal rights for all” declared the Kurdish Member of Parliament Barham Saleh, outgoing Deputy Prime Minister. “It is now possible for us Kurds to feel, today, that we really belong, in a place that for the last 80 years has been run on ethnic and sectarian lines” he added. In the Kurdish provinces of Iraq and in the oil-producing city of Kirkuk, the inhabitants let themselves go with outbursts of joy in the streets, dancing and hooting horns, to celebrate this election. Cars, with their hoods covered by the Kurdish red, white and green flag with a sunburst symbol in the middle, paraded through the streets all horns hooting. Kurds waved photos of Jalal Talabani and sang verses in praise of the peshmergas, their valiant warriors. However there were no Iraqi flags, because the Kurds consider it to be a Baathist Party banner and are insisting on the country adopting a new flag.
In Iranian Kurdistan, people come down into the streets in several towns, including Mahabad. The scenes of rejoicing continued till nightfall. People gave away little cakes and car drivers flashed their headlights. The town’s chief of police, Seyed Marouf Samadi, confirmed these “scenes of joy” and did not confirm certain reports of people being arrested. Identical scenes took place in other towns in the region. “At Piranshahr, people went down into the streets to dance. They also distributed cakes and sweetmeats”, reported the former local Member of Parliament Hassel Dassé. President Mohammad Khatami congratulated Jalal Talabani, whose election as Iraqi President, he said, “was a source of joy” according to a message of congratulations published by the Student News Agency ISNA. Mr. Khatami repeated the Iranian call for a “free and independent” Iraq in a message addressed to the man whose good relations with the Islamic regime are well known. “I inform you of our country’s readiness to cooperate and provide the Iraqi people and government with any help they may need”, he declared.
In Syria, several hundreds of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds celebrated Jalal Talabani’s election in the centre of Damascus. The Kurds assembled near the offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Mr. Talabani’s own party, giving passers-bye sweetmeats and drinks and singing and dancing to traditional music. “For the first time a Kurd has been elected Head of State” rejoiced Salah Berwari, head of communications of the PUK office in Damascus. “For the first time the people of Iraq are not discriminating betweens a Kurd, an Arab, a Turcoman or an Assyrian. The only criterion is competence and availability to serve the country”, he stressed. “We are all brothers, there is no difference between a Kurd, a Shiite or a Sunni” Mr. Berwari insisted.
Mr. Talabani’s election also gave rise to all sorts of celebrations in Turkish Kurdistan and amongst the Kurdish communities of Europe, America and the Caucasus. Over and above all political or regional differences, the Kurds found grounds for pride that one of their own had reached the position of head of State in Iraq as a result of free elections. The Iraqi Shiites also favourably welcomed the election of a historic opponent of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.
The Sunni Arab politicians and population remain very divided, some criticising their religious leaders for making them lose this top position by calling for a boycott of the 30 January elections. In the Adamiyah quarter, the Sunni Arab fortress of Baghdad, a cleric consoled himself by affirming that the essential, in his eyes was that “the President be a Moslem, be he Sunni, Shiite or Kurdish”. “All this is because we don’t have any structured religious hierarchy and the religious leaders differed on taking part in the elections” declared Sheikh Ali Abdullah al-Azawi, to explain why the Sunni Arabs had lost the position of head of state which had been held by one of their community for the last 80 years. The most important Sunni religious organisation, the Committee of Moslem Ulemas (CMU) had called for a boycott of the 30 January General Elections, which reduced the number of Sunni Arabs in the Assembly to 16 out of 275, although they make up between 15 and 17% of the Iraqi population. The losing candidate for the position of Vice President against Ghazi al-Yawar, Adnan Pashashi complained of the lack of cohesion in the Sunni community. “I call on them not to feel distraught but to prepare as of now to take part in the next elections (planned for the end of the year) so as to show the real weight of the Sunni Arabs in Iraqi society”.
The election of the Presidential Council was watched on television in prison by ex-President Saddam Hussein and eleven leaders of his overthrown regime, stated the Human Rights Minister, Bakhtiar Amin. “I decided to install television in the prison so that Saddam Hussein and 11 of his men could watch the election and understand that their time is finished and that a new Iraq is born — one of democracy and not of coups d’états” the Minister explained.
Despite their apprehensions and reservations, the governments of the neighbouring states of Syria, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, expressed hopes for success. “Mr. Talabani is an experienced politician who attaches importance to the unity of Iraq. For this reason I congratulate him” declared the head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Abdullah Gul. He hoped that “Iraqi identity” would be strengthened. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad expressed “his best wishes for the health, happiness and success” of Mr. Talabani, who has maintained close links with Damascus, especially during the period of the late Hafez al-Assad, the father of the present Head of State. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia also congratulated Jalal Talabani and wished the Iraqi people “prosperity, security and stability”. The Emir of Qatar, Hamad ben Khalifa al-Thani also sent his congratulations.
For King Mohammad VI of Morocco, the election of Mr. Talabani “illustrates the democratic orientation and attachment to national and territorial unity of our brother Iraq”. The General Secretary of the Islamic Conference Organisation, Akmal ad-Din Oghali, said he “was confident that, as the first democratically elected President of Iraq, Mr. Talabani would know how to lead Iraq on the road to unity, stability and development”. The General Secretary of the Arab League, Amr Mussa, whose organisation has 22 member states, congratulated Jalal Talabani, describing him as an “eminent political public figure”. France, Australia and Russia welcomed this election as well as the appointment of Mr. Jaafari by the Presidential Council.
For the United States, the arrival of the new interim governing team in Baghdad was the victory of a stage, but the length of the negotiations allows them to foresee difficulties on the road to democracy. “The interim Iraqi Assembly has taken an important step towards democracy today, voting to elect the Presidential Council by an overwhelming majority” stated US President George W. Bush, who called Mr. Talabani by phone to congratulate him in person. Australia, Washington’s ally in the war against Iraq launched in March 2003, also congratulated the new Iraqi Presidency, describing this election as a sign of the country’s “maturity”, and its commitment to democracy. Tony Blair “congratulated” Jalal Talabani as well as the other members of the Iraqi Presidential Council during the Prime Minister’s weekly Parliamentary question time. “I am sure that the whole House will join me in congratulating the new Iraqi Presidential Council, which was confirmed today by the transitional National Assembly resulting from the first democratic elections in Iraq’s history” declared Mr. Blair. The President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durao Barroso reaffirmed Brussels’ commitment to supporting the reconstruction of Iraq in a message of “congratulations”. “I want to confirm to you our intention to continue supporting the reconstruction of Iraq as well as the coming political and constitutional process, which should result in a better life and more prosperity for the whole Iraqi population” wrote Mr. Barroso.
In New York, the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, welcomed the new Presidency and indicated that he hoped the transition government would rapidly be formed, assuring it that UNO was eager to work with the new political leaders.
For his part, NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer assured Jalal Talabani of the Alliance’s support in a message of “congratulations” sent on his appointment. “The formation of this government is an important and historic step in the creation of a new and democratic Iraq” Mr. de Hoop Scheffer considered, also “congratulating” the Vice Presidents and Prime Minister designate Ibrahim al-Jaafari. “The government is faced with great challenges, one of the most important of which being to ensure the security of Iraq by Iraqis” and on this road “NATO has committed itself to contributing its help” he stressed. “The Alliance intends to deepen this support and to work with the new Iraqi leadership” Mr. de Hoop Scheffer assured his readers, recalling that NATO was already taking part in the training and equipping of the Iraqi security forces.
In principle, the Iraqi National Assembly must draft the new Permanent Constitution before 15 August to enable it to be ratified by referendum before 15 October. A single delay of 6 months, which cannot be further extended, is possible in the event of difficulties in finalising the document. If the Constitution is approved in time, General Elections should take place by 31 December at the latest. The US State Department has expressed the hope that this timetable will be kept. “Everyone agrees on the importance of keeping to the calendar”, declared its spokesman Richard Boucher.
Furthermore, in an interview published on 25 April in the Turkish daily Sabah, President Talabani declared that the Iraqi Kurds would not accept the setting up of an Islamic State in Iraq, but that the country’s Islamic identity would be respected. “We Iraqi Kurds will never accept the formation of an Islamic regime in Iraq”, declared Mr. Talabani. “Arabs, Kurds, Turcomen, Sunnis and Shiites, Moslems and Christians all live together and this structure would not allow an Islamist regime”, he continued. The Iraqi President moreover declared that he would promote a secular system in the country, even if “we do not use the term secularism”. “What we say is that a democratic, federal, parliamentary, united and independent Iraq will respect the Moslem identity of the Iraqi people. It is a sign that there will not be any Islamic regime or Islamic government”, he concluded.
The Iraqi President also undertook, on 21 April, to work for an improvement in relations between Baghdad and Ankara. “I will fight to strengthen relations between Turkey and Iraq”, declared Mr. Talabani, whose remarks were translated into Turkish, on the CNN-Turk television channel. “I will do all that I can to improve relations in all areas —political, economic and commercial”, he added. The Iraqi Head of State made the point that he would work for the opening of a second border post between the two neighbouring countries so as to revive trades, as well as a Turkish consulate in Mossul. “The Iraqi government has decided that there will be no room in Iraq for foreign armed groups” stressed Mr. Talabani. When the reconstruction of Iraq has been completed, “the Iraqi government’s decision will become applicable” he assured his readers.
On 28 April, the Iraqi parliament approved by 180 votes of the 185 members present, the government presented by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. The members of parliament present greeted the vote with a salvo of applause. After weeks of bargaining between the two major Shiite and Kurdish coalitions that emerged victorious from the General election, Ibrahim Jaafari presented his government to the Presidential council on 27 April before submitting it to a vote of confidence in the Assembly the next day. The latter, on the same day, elected as speaker of the House, by 215 out of the 241 present, the outgoing Minister for Industry, Hajem al-Hassani, a Sunni Arab, with two Deputy Speakers, a Shiite scientist and nuclear specialist, Hussein Shahristani, imprisoned under the Saddam Hussein regime, and a Kurd, Aref Tayfur, a leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).
However, several of the 36 Ministries remain, for the time being, held by the outgoing Ministers to give the different organisations time to agree on the final choice. Five sensitive Ministries thus are left without permanent Ministers including those for Defence and Oil. Thus the Ministries of Defence, Oil, Industry, Electricity and Human Rights are headed, for the time being, by temporary Ministers. Thus the Prime Minister is also in charge of Defence, and Ahmed Shalabi will be Oil Minister. The Shiite Baian Jabbor has been appointed Minister of the Interior. Another Shiite, Ali Abul Amir Allawi has been received the Finance portfolio. The Kurd Abdel Basset Karim becomes Minister for Trade.
The composition of the government, which includes seven women, was proposed to Parliament by the three-man Presidential Council. The new government aroused sharp criticism from the representatives of the Sunni community that considered it had been marginalised and only received “caricature ministries”. In the list voted by Parliament, the Shiites, the main victors of the 30 January General Election, have the lion’s share with some 16 ministries, followed by the Kurds with nine.
The Iraqi Vice President, Ghazi al-Yawar, called a press conference to defend his decision. “It is true that the number of Ministries (granted to Sunni Arabs) is less than hoped for” he conceded, explaining that he had accepted the list because of the urgency, in his eyes, of forming an executive 12 weeks after the elections. “I am not totally satisfied with the government”, he announced, criticising those who had formed it of doing so on sectarian criteria. “We were obliged to do it this way”, regretted Mr. al-Yawar, whose own Iraqi’un list only won five seats in Parliament.
In Sunni Arab circles, the Head of the Wakfs (religious trust funds) Adnan Dlimi, a moderate, reacted to the government by a single sentence: “The Sunni Arabs have been marginalised”, but he added “the Sunni Arabs marginalised themselves by boycotting the elections”. Mr. Dlimi consoled himself be pointing out that the government had only few months’ life ahead of it. He promised to busy himself with “raising the awareness (of his people) to the necessity of taking part in the political process” in preparation for the General elections planned, in principle, for December 2005, after adoption of the permanent Constitution.
The Bush Administration had exhorted the Iraqis during the preceding week, to agree on forming a government. The Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice and US Vice-President Dick Cheney, had asked the Kurdish and Sunni leaders to reach an agreement on the formation of the new Iraqi government. The New York Times indicated, in its 25 April issue, that, on 22 April, the US Secretary of State had telephoned the new Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, to ask him to complete the formation of his government “as quickly as possible” and “to keep her up to date on the situation”. The New York daily also indicated that Mrs Rice and Mr. Cheney had met Vice-President Adil Abdul Mahdi in Washington. The New York Times stated that Mrs. Rice had indicated to Mr. Talabani and Mr. Mahdi that more than enough time had passed since the January elections and that a government had to be formed now. These pressures from the White House were something new after the non-interventionist approach that the Bush Administration had publicly exhibited with regard to Iraq, even if their impact is far from clear, the paper pointed out.
In the Arab world, the Egyptian Foreign Minster, Ahmed Abul Gheit indicated that his country “welcomed this essential stage in the Iraqi political process which includes, especially, the drafting of a Constitution” while considering that “the friction (between the various communities) is going to continue and that the instability will last quite a while yet”. Ussama Saraya, Editor chief of the government review Al-Ahram al-Arabi considered that “the political winter will continue in Iraq”. “We hope that Iraq will know a political spring, but, alas, this political winter will be prolonged”, he stressed, blaming the weakness of a “political caste brought in from abroad” to run the country after Saddam Hussein’s fall.
In the Gulf press, which usually reflects official views, the new Iraqi government, which ahs left several important Ministries empty, will be confronted with enormous challenges. “This was a caesarean birth (…) the pressures were strong (…) Washington intervened openly to put an end to” the weeks of haggling between the victors of the 30 January general elections, wrote the daily Al-Bayan (United Arab Emirates). The “security challenge” will be the real test, the paper considered, but “in the long term the success (of the government) will depend on its capacity to accelerate the withdrawal of the occupation forces”.
While granting support in many ways to the Iraqi insurgents, Syria congratulated the Iraqi Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, indicating that it was ready to offer him help in all areas, according to the official news agency Sana. In a message of congratulation sent to Mr. Jaafari, the Syrian Prime Minister, Mohammad Naji Otri also wished his opposite number “success in his mission of responding to the hopes of the Iraqi people”. Moreover, the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami declared his “satisfaction” and offered Iraq the cooperation of the Islamic Republic in several areas. In a letter to Mr. Jaafari, published by the Iranian media on 29 April, Mr. Khatami expressed his “satisfaction” at seeing his come to office. “The period that the Iraqi people and government are going through is vital, it requires vigilance and preservation of national unity” added Mr. Khatami.
Some 200 Turkish public figures, in an open letter made public on 11 April, expressed their anxiety at the rise of nationalism in Turkey, which they say could engender a fresh outbreak of tension between Turks and Kurds. This document, signed by NGOs, academics, writers, journalists, artists and musicians refers to a attempted lynching, by an over exited mob of 2,000 in Trabzon (on the Black Sea coast) of five activists who were distributing leaflets in support of detainees rights, in a market.
The youths, taken by the shop-keepers and passers bye for Kurdish activists, after a rumour that they had burnt a Turkish flag, were saved at the last moment by the intervention of the police and jailed for disturbing public order. An insult to the Turkish flag by some Kurdish adolescents during the Kurdish New Year celebrations in Mersin (South) on 21 March amplified and constantly shown on Turkish television had provoked a nationalist wave throughout Turkey. The intellectuals further called for the sacking of a sub-prefect who had ordered the seizure of the novels by a Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk in his locality of Sutculer (South West) — an incident that hit the headlines in a country aspiring to join the European Union. In an excess of zeal, the official, irritated by the writer’s statements on the Armenian genocide, had published a circular ordering this seizure, until it was cancelled by his superior.
Here are extensive extracts from the appeal:
“We are expressing our anxiety at the danger of a renewal of a context of conflict and violence, in view of recent attempts to hinder the process of peace, civilisation and democracy in our country. The decision of including in the Penal Code articles that repress, so to speak, any political opposition and striking a blow at the freedom of the press, freedom of expression and free thinking is a terrifying drift of judicial power. The articles in question do not just attack certain members of the press, but proscribe freedom of information. Despite the postponement of the date for this law’s coming into force, our anxieties persist.
He reactions that followed the insult to the (Turkish) flag by a few children as well as the attitude adopted against certain provocations during the Newroz celebration, leading to a nationalist and racist context that finds support in the public authorities. We note with the greatest anxiety the detention of young people, victims of an attempted lynching, instead and in place of the aggressors who tried to lynch them, in the city of Trabzon. The respect due to the flag by all citizens was transformed into a mass hysteria (…) engendered by Kurdish and Turkish nationalism. We are worried at this upsurge liable to cause conflict between our citizens and again lead our country back to a climate of violence and division.
A sub-prefect, who overstepped his authority, launched a campaign of punishment against books and writers. The repetition of actions of this kind and the maintenance of the official responsible for this decision in his position worry us and remind us of the Nazi period. (…)
“Reaching the level of contemporary civilisation” constitutes the very principle of the foundation of the Turkish Republic. We think that the application of this principle is not achieved by classing certain people as so-called citizens but by guaranteeing justice without any spirit of animosity towards a people, by democratisation, by civilisation and peace between citizens and with the rest of the world. We consider that recent events delay efforts in this direction and, thus, extinguish hopes.
We are opposed to the preponderance in our country of separatist, oppressive opinions, partisan of the status quo and litigious. We warn all the institutions that are in charge of our country’s future and those who fuel tensions within the population and invite them to show their good sense.”
The first signatories:
Ms. Adalet Agaoglu (authoress), Can Dundar (journalist), Cetin Altan (author), Dogu Ergil (academic), Etyen Mahcupyan (author), Ms. Fusun Sayek (President of the TTB), Genay Gursoy (academic), Gurer Aykal (orchestra conductor), Hikmet Cetinkaya (journalist), Hrant Dink (journalist), Ibrahim Betil (administrator), Mehmet Aksoy (sculptor), Mehmet Ali Birand (journalist), Mehmet Altan (academic), Mujde Ar (performer), Nese Duzek (journalist), Orhan Taylan (painter), Tugrul Eryilmaz (journalist), Zulfu Livaneli (author & member of parliament).
The European Union is urging Turkey to accelerate the rate of its reforms before the opening of negotiations for membership in October, informing Ankara of its concerns regarding Human Rights and freedom of worship. “A certain number of problems worry us” declared on 26 April the Luxembourg Foreign Minister, Jean Asselborn, on the occasion of the EU-Turkey Association Council, the last top level meeting before the opening of negotiations, set for 3October. “The Turkish government has agreed to immense reforms, but they must be pursued and, above all, be applied” he added during a press conference with his Turkish equivalent, Abdullah Gul. “This is how European public opinion will judge Turkey’s determination to integrate into the E.U.”.
The E.U. has warned Turkey against any divergence from the path of democratic reforms liable to hinder the opening of negotiations for membership with Ankara in less than six months time. “Certain questions continue to worry us, in particular religious freedom, the protection of minorities, the exercise of cultural and social rights and the relations between the Army and civil society”, stressed Mr. Asselborn. In a document drawn up for this meeting, the EU highlighted, in particular, the persistence of “cases of torture and ill-treatment” in Turkey. The document also denounces the repression of a women’s demonstration in Istanbul last March. “A resolute, effective and overall carrying out of the reforms will be a determining factor for the success of the whole process of membership”, Mr. Asselborn warned. The European Commissioner for the Enlargement, Olli Rehn went one better, calling for the reforms to be concretely realised “in every street and every street corner of Turkey”. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, in return assured that there should “not be any doubt” about Ankara’s determination. “I have renewed our determination to carry out these reforms. … Problems may, perhaps, appear here and there, but we trying not to ever ignore the difficulties”, he declared.
Jean Asselborn and Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner for the Enlargement, reminded Ankara of the need to strengthen the State of Law and for a better observance of the rights of women and of ethnic and religious minorities. They did not publicly refer to the beating up by police of demonstrators during International Women’s Day on 8 March last, nor of the legal proceedings started by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan against several journalists who had published satirical caricatures. But a European diplomat, who had taken part in the discussions, certified that “all these questions were raised during the meeting”.
These criticisms provoked a fierce reaction from Erdogan, who accused the Europeans of dragging their feet “There is no lethargy on our part, and if we are going to speak of lethargy it is on their side” he declared in Istanbul. “Turkey’s sincere efforts must be properly understood by our European friends and they should avoid statements or measures that could endanger the process of reforms and offend the sensitivities of the Turkish people” he added.
Olli Rehn, for his side rejected the arguments of certain supporters of the NO for the 29 May referendum in France, who were stating that a rejection of the European Constitutional Treaty would enable it also to oppose the membership of Turkey. “The decision to open negotiations for membership with Croatia and Turkey was taken at the highest level, by the Heads of State of the EU” he reminded his hearers, stressing that it did not depend on the results of the French referendum.
Messrs Asselborn and Rehn, moreover, expressed their hopes for a rapid signature of the protocol for extension of Turkey’s customs agreement to the ten new member countries, a stage considered crucial for the normalisation of relations between Ankara and Cyprus, of which only the Greek part joined the EU on 1 May 2004. A. Gül promised that Turkey would sign the protocol as soon as it was ready, adding that his country was making progress in the application of the reforms demanded by the EU. “When there are so many things on the agenda, certain problems are inevitable”, he admitted. The European Commission hopes to send the text of the extension of Turkey’s Customs union to the European Council before sending it for signature to Ankara. Mr. Gul, for his part, urged the EU to make more concrete and rapid the economic aid of 259 euros promised till 2006 and the establishment of direct trade liaisons between Northern Cyprus and the EU, so far blocked by reservations on the part of the Greeks and Cypriots. On the other hand the Foreign Minister refused to give way on the issue of the Armenian genocide. He swept aside the appeal from his French opposite number, Michel Barnier, for an “effort of memory” on Ankara’s part. “That’s a matter of internal policy, a minor issue”, declared Mr. Gul
However, a majority of Turks are still in favour of their country joining the European Union, but this support is falling according to an opinion poll published in Milliyet on 7 April. According to this enquiry, made the week before among 3,302 people by the Pollmark Institute, 63% of those polled supported Turkey’s integration into the European Club. This is a drop of 10% compared to a poll carried out by the same Institute in June 2004. Turkish support for the European cause has been between 70 and 80% over the last few years. This drop in enthusiasm for the EU may be explained by the rise of nationalism provoked by the discussion on Kurdish rights, the Cyprus conflict and international pressure for recognition by Ankara of the Armenian genocide during the Ottoman Empire, estimated the co-ordinator of this latest poll, Ihsan Dagi, as quoted by the news paper.
On 26 April, he European Human Rights Court (ECHR), considered that the expulsion from Turkey of an Iraqi citizen, a member of the Turcoman minority, whose situation in Iraq would not be worse than that of his fellow citizens, was not a breach of Human Rights.
Ahmad Hassan Müslim, of Turcoman origin, had fled his country to Turkey in 1988, after being involved in a fight in the course of which a relative of Saddam Hussein was wounded by a bullet. He had then asked for political asylum, affirming that his life would be in danger if he returned home. The Turkish authorities and the High Commission for Refugees did not grant him this status. He was able, however, to remain in Turkey thanks to a provisional status of refugee then to a residential permit valid till 1 May 2005. The petitioner asked the ECHR to find Turkey guilty of violation of Article 3 (banning inhuman and degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Court considered that “evidence provided regarding the petitioner’s past activities and the general situation in Iraq, in no way showed that the personal situation of the petitioner could be any worse than that of other members of the Turcomenian minority or, indeed, of other inhabitants of North Iraq”. “The simple possibility of ill-treatment because of the unstable situation in the country did not, in itself, involve a breach of Article 3, especially as democratic developments are taking place in Iraq”, added the Court, stressing that UNO, backed by the Council of Europe had set up a plan for the return of refugees to Iraq. Thus the European judges concluded that the possibility of Mr. Müslim’s expulsion would not be a violation of Article 3.
On the other hand, Turkey was found guilty on the same day by the European Court for breach of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in two distinct cases. The EHRC found in favour of Bulent Falakaoglu, a former Chief Editor of the daily Yeni Evrensel. Charged with “separatist propaganda” after the publication, in March 2002, of a critical article on the Kurdish question. He had then been sentenced to two years imprisonment, later amended to a fine of about 1,050 euros, for “inciting people to hatred on the basis if race or religion”. The court considered that the charges were not “sufficient to justify interfering with the petitioner’s right to freedom of expression” and sentenced Turkey to paying him 1,000 € for material damages and 3,000 € for moral damages and violation of Article 10 (the right to freedom of expression).
Moreover, the EHRC ruled that the dissolution of the Party for Democracy and Evolution (DDP) in 1996 was a violation of article 11 (the right to freedom of association). Created in 1995 to promote the Kurdish language and development, the DDP had been dissolved by the Turkish authorities on the grounds that its programme “was of a character to damage the territorial integrity of the State and the unity of the nation”.
The Strasbourg Court considered that the DDP had been dissolved “on the sole grounds of its programme, before even having been able to begin its activities” and that “in the absence of political projects of a nature to compromise the democratic regime in the country” its dissolution could not “be considered as meeting an imperious social need”. It decided to grant the two petitioners 4,316 € jointly to cover their costs.
Moreover, on 5 April, Turkey was found guilty by the Human Rights Court in two cases of people having spent four and five years in pre-trial detention.
Ali Hidir Polat, 45 years of age, was arrested in March 1996, charged and placed in detention for membership of an illegal organisation (the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party — MLKP) and for taking part in armed actions aimed at replacing the State. After a multitude of demands for release on bail, he was finally released, after five years and three months provisional detention, in 2001. Legal proceedings against him are still pending. Nabi Kimran, 40 years of age, was arrested in September 1996, charged and placed in detention for membership and assistance to the MLKP. H was finally sentenced by the State Security Court to 18 years and nine months imprisonment (less the period of his provisional detention).
In both cases the European Court stressed that the Turkish Courts had justified the maintenance in provisional detention “by basing themselves on almost identical, not to say stereotyped, formulae such as the nature of the crime charged and the state of evidence”. The European Court, while recognising that “the existence and persistence of serious indications of culpability” could be a “pertinent” factor, considered that this could not justify “maintenance in contentious detention for so long a period”. Turkey was thus found guilty of breach of Article 5 para. 3 (the right to be rapidly brought before a judge) of the European Convention on Human Rights and will have to pay 4,000€ moral damages to Mr. Polat and 3,500€ to Mr. Kimran,
In the last few weeks, the head of the government has allowed an uncharacteristic bad temper to show through, retaliating immoderately to the slightest criticism of his government. The media in particular were the butt of this aggressivity, being accused by Mr. Erdogan of playing the role of opponents to Turkey’s entry into the European Union after they had denounced the violence of the police against women during the demonstration in Istanbul in early March. Turkey’s very influential employer’s federation received a stinging “mind your own business” when it joined the concert of criticism. The Turkish prime Minister, recently accused of attacking the press, won a legal suit for defamation against a journalist who had criticised his efforts to criminalise adultery. The Court sentenced Fikret Otyam, a former special correspondent, now, at 79, a famous painter, to pay Mr. Erdogan 5,000 new Turkish lire (£2,000) damages for humorous criticisms. Recently a Turkish caricaturist was condemned to pay a fine for depicting the Prime Minister as a cat entangled in a ball of wool, referring to Mr. Erdogn’s fruitless efforts to get a law passed easing the entry to University of students from religious schools. Mr. Erdogan also started legal proceedings against the magazine Penguen for having caricatured him in the form of several animals.
This man, who spent four months in jail at the end of the 90s for having recited a poem with Islamist connotations at a political meeting, has often described himself as a victim of undemocratic measures. In the eyes of his government’s detractors, it has been marking time in the reforms aimed at adapting the country to European standards ever since December 2004, when the European leaders gave the green light for starting negotiations with Ankara in October. The Turkish executive is thus slow to appoint a chief negotiator for the discussions with the EU and to put into application the new Penal Code, adopted last autumn, in response to European demands.
Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party’s keenest critics see in these delays evidence that the government never really subscribed to the idea of Turkey in the EU and only defended it out of political opportunism. Thus Suleyman Saribas, a member of Parliament who recently resigned from the AKP said “The EU is not a route in which they really believe. Democracy is a regime of tolerance, of which they quite lacking”. Mr. Saribas is one of 13 members of parliament (including a Minister) who have left the AKP since February, accusing the government of nepotism, corruption and lack or respect for dissident opinions. The majority of the resigning M.P.s come from the centre-right and only joined an AKP that was anxious to show it had broken with its islamist past on the eve of the 2002 General Elections. The Prime Minister, evoking “the basket’s rotten apples” affirms that these defections had not bothered him and described the criticisms of his government as political jealousy.
Nevertheless, the AKP continues to enjoy, according to the opinion polls, considerable popularity and has a comfortable majority in Parliament. “In an Assembly of 550 members, 357 seats is still a big majority, but it is evident that some internal haemorrhage has appeared” considered the editorial writer Cengiz Candar in the daily Tercuman. If the party continues to lose members of Parliament the government may be obliged to call an early election next year, he concluded.
The Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, stated, in an interview given to the French daily Le Figaro of 5 April 205, that it would be “unacceptable” for Iran to give up the peaceful use of nuclear energy. “We are ready to consider any reasonable solution but we refuse the final and definite suspension of our activity. The Europeans must understand that the Non-Proliferation Treaty and international conventions authorises us to possess nuclear technology for peaceful purposes (…) To oblige us to renounce peaceful nuclear power (…) would be unacceptable to us”, stressed the President of the Islamic Republic. According to him, Iran is ready to consider any reasonable solution, but refuses the permanent suspension of nuclear activities. Mohammad Khatami, whose period in office ends in June, was in Paris for an international conference on “the dialogue of civilisations” which took place on 5 April at UNESCO.
Mr. Khatami insisted on the necessity for respecting the agreement reached in Paris between Iran and the European Union, which provides for Iran guaranteeing that its nuclear activities would not be directed towards nuclear weapons while Europe “offered a firm guarantee that it would ensured the security and development of Iran”. “We know that Europe prefers a diplomatic solution. We hope that the Europeans will be less influence by pressures from the Americans and other powers”, declared the Iranian President. Questioned as to how seriously he took rumours of the possibility of an American strike against Iranian nuclear sites, Mr. Khatami stated that his country took them seriously enough “to the extent that we are preparing ourselves for them” and that Iran was ready to defend itself.
During a one and a half hour meeting with his Iranian opposite number, Jacques Chirac “reaffirmed the determination of the Europeans to find a solution, through dialogue, which would establish the peaceful character of the Iranian nuclear programme”, indicated the French President’s spokesman, Jerome Bonnafont.
Since the 2004 Paris agreements, which led Iran to suspending its activities of uranium enrichment, the European “troika” has been trying to reach a compromise with Teheran regarding its nuclear programme in exchange for compensations, particularly in the economic and trading areas. The United States, which is resolved to support the European approach in the absence of the case being submitted to the UN Security Council, accuses Iran of seeking to equip itself with nuclear weapons under the cover of civilian activities. To encourage the mullahs’ regime in the direction of cooperation, Washington accepted no longer to oppose its membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and to authorise the sale to Iran of spare parts for civilian planes. On 23 March Iran presented a compromise proposal that reduced its nuclear capacity to 500 centrifuges, a stock that, in theory, would prevent it from building an atom bomb.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, for his part, announced on 27 April that Iran would resume uranium enrichment whatever might be the outcome of its negotiations with the three European powers. Speaking before the press five days before the planned resumption of negotiations with France, Great Britain and Germany, Mr. Asefi stated that the Europeans seemed serious in their will to find an agreement with Iran, but that any agreement had to respect Iran’s right, as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium. He also repeated that the suspension of uranium enrichment would not last long and that Iran would resume this activity whatever the outcome of discussions with the Europeans, be they a success or a failure.
Furthermore, on 30 April the German press reported that a German company was suspected of having sold weapons technology to Iran. According to Der Spiegel magazine, an unidentified firm is suspected of having sold Iran secrets for building missiles in 2002, while the weekly Focus identifies the company under the name of Tiram adding that the deliveries were intercepted at the end of 2004 in Dubai by the intelligence services of an allied country. According to both magazines, German technology was to have been used to in the context of the Shahab missile programme, with the capacity of carrying nuclear heads and a range capable of reaching Israel and several US bases in the Middle East. On 29 April, the Federal Public Prosecutors declared that they were investigating an executive of a company located in the state of Thuringia, in East Germany. The man, aged 64, identified as Peter K., was detained then released. According to the Prosecutors’ communiqué, the company had started delivering technology to Iran as from the years 2001-2002.
On 25 April, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani announced he was standing as candidate in the Iranian Presidential elections, due on 17 June. In his statement he said he had no other choice but “to swallow this bitter potion” even if the former President has been presenting himself, for several months as being one of the few man able to resolve the country’s problems and improve relations with the United States. “The Presidential Elections are my main concern for the moment and, even if I would like to see someone else take on this responsibility, I think I must swallow this bitter potion (the presidential candidacy)” declared Ayatollah Rafsanjani, according to the official news agency IRNA. “What I did not want is, apparently, coming to pass”, added the man who was President from 1989 to 1997 and who remains one of the top leaders of the Islamic regime.
Reputed to be a pragmatic conservative, Rafsanjani has maintained, for some months past, a mystery about his intentions, declaring that he would prefer to see another “capable” person seek to win the presidency and spare him from what he described as an act of self sacrifice. He again contrasted his stature as a Statesman with that of the other declared conservative candidates, and played on the danger of a low turnout, which officials have made an important issue to foil the “plots” of those who, in Iran and abroad, challenge the regime’s legitimacy. “People won’t give a vote of confidence to someone they don’t know” he declared “It is unacceptable that things continue like this and lead to the election of a President with less experience and a low vote”.
Mr. Rafsanjani, 70 years of age, is today the regime’s unofficial N°2 figure, after the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He runs the Council of Discernment the Islamic Republic’s highest organ of political arbitration. He was also a close collaborator of Imam Khomeiny, the founder of the Republic. His statement evokes the one by which Imam Khomeiny accepted to take “poison”, that is the cease-fire that ended the war against Iraq in 1988. Commander-in-chief of the armed forces for some months previous, it was he who had convinced Imam Khomeiny to put an end to a conflict that had caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. He had been President of the Parliament since 1980. His years as president (1989-1997) were marked by a ferocious repression of democrats and by the assassination in Europe of opposition leaders behind a “moderate” and “pragmatic” mask. It is thus one of the pillars of the Islamic Republic who is again seeking to take the centre of the stage. For months past his entourage has been presenting him as being the most able to impose the economic changes of which the country has a crying need, of opposing the radicalisation of the regime and also of dissipating the international tensions to which the Islamic Republic is being subjected. “I am not the only one” able to improve relations with the United States, broken off in 1980, “but I am one of them” he said in February, in the first foreign press interview he had given for a long time, to the American daily US Today.
The former heads of the Foreign Ministry and the public television, Ali Akbar Velayati and Ali Larijani, today the Supreme Guide’s councillors, the former Commanders of the Guardians of the Revolution (the ideological army) and of the police, Mohsen Rezai and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, are also standing as candidates. The ex-leader of Parliament and the ex-Minister of Education are also called upon to play the parts of reform candidates, provided their candidacies are approved by the conservative control organs. The reformist President in office, Mohammad Khatami, who is at the end of his second successive term of office, is debarred by the Constitution from a third consecutive term. Candidacies have to be filed between 10 and 14 May. The multiplicity of candidates could require a second round, for the first time in the Republic’s history, unless there are some withdrawals. The elected President will have limited prerogatives, most of the power being held by the unelected religious bodies. In this theocracy, in which Jaferi Shiism is the State religion, Sunni, Christian or secular candidates are automatically excluded, although Sunni Moslems (Kurds, Baluchis, Turkomen) make up about a quarter of the Iranian population.
On 24 April, tens of thousands of Armenians gathered to meditate at Erevan before the monument to the victims of the 1915 genocide, on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the massacres perpetrated by the Turks. In tears or in silence, they followed President Robert Kocharian in laying wreaths before the monument in memory of the victims; build on a hill in the Armenian capital. During this ceremony, Catholicos Karekin II, Head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, recited a prayer. A big poster, with photos of 90 survivors of the genocide, was hung on the monument.
A minute’s silence was observed throughout the country at 7.00 pm local time (2 pm GMT) after an ecumenical mass celebrated in Erevan’s St Gregory Cathedral, with prayers recited by representatives of the Catholic, Anglican, Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches.
On 24 April 1915, in the middle of the First World War, the Turkish authorities gave the signal that Armenia considers the beginning of a planned genocide. Ninety years ago “an crime was committed without any precedent in the history of our people or of all humanity” declared President Kocharian in an address to the nation. He nevertheless made a gesture to Turkey by assuring his hearers that Armenia was “ready to build natural relations with Turkey”, with which Erevan has still not established diplomatic relations. “However, Turkey’s negations arouses not only our perplexity but that of the whole international community” he added.
While thousands of members of the very large Armenian diaspora came to Erevan, thousands of people demonstrated in France. There were over 500 more in Athens and thousand in Lvov, in Western Ukraine. The figure of 1.5 million demonstrators expected in Erevan was impossible to check because of the absence of any official estimation of the number of visitors to the monument to the victims of the genocide.
US President, George W. Bush, sent a message from his ranch at Crawford, Texas, to express his sadness on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the forced mass displacements and massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, while omitting to describe it as genocide. “I address my American compatriots (of Armenian origin) and to the Armenian people throughout the world, my deep condolences for these horrible losses in human life” declared President Bush in a communiqué That avoided describing these massacres as genocide to spare the his Turkish ally’s touchy feelings.
In France, French President Jacques Chirac and his Armenian opposite number Robert Kocharian laid a wreath on 22 April at the Komitas monument, Cours Albert I, in Paris. The city of Paris and the Ile-de-France Region displayed giant kakemonos (vertical banderols). Banners reading “Armenian genocide: Ile de France remembers” and “Armenian genocide: Paris remembers” were hung on the facades of the Regional Council and City Hall buildings. Moreover the City periodically displayed the message “Paris remembers the Armenian genocide” on its electronic notice boards.
Ankara categorically rejects the thesis of a genocide considering that it was just a repression in a civil war context and limits the number of Armenian deaths to between 300,000 and 500,000.
On 29 April, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated to the Turkish daily Milliyet that Turkey could establish political relations with Armenia while conducting a research study on the 1915 massacres in parallel with that country. “Political relations could be established and, on the other hand research work could be pursued”, he declared. The Armenian President had replied with a conditional yes on 26 April to a proposal by Ankara to create a commission of experts to study the Armenian massacres, declaring that “normal relations” between the two countries had to be established first. “Your proposal to turn our attention to the past will only be effective if it also touches on the present and the future. For a constructive dialogue we must necessarily create a favourable political climate. The development of bilateral relations depends on governments, not on historians”, added Mr. Kocharian.
The Turkish government also announced on 25 April the start of a campaign aimed at countering the appeals for it to recognise the Armenian massacres by the Ottoman Turks as genocide. It has called on Turkish public institutions and civil society to take part. The government considers that, henceforth “it is inevitable that all State institutions and non-governmental organisations, that every one (work) to refute these baseless allegations throughout the world”, declared the Minister of Justice, Cemil Cicek after a ministerial council meeting. “There was no genocide. A general effort is necessary to expose the lies of those who affirm that it took place”, affirmed Mr. Cicek, who is also the government’s spokesman. The Ministers have also decided to create, if necessary, a special agency to co-ordinate efforts in this campaign, Mr. Cicek pointed out. On 10 April, he Head of the Turkish Armed forces, General Hilmi Ozkok, called on Armenia to commit itself to good neighbour relations with Turkey and give up its claims about the genocidal character of the Armenian massacres. He explained the exodus, to which hundreds of thousands of members of that community had been forced, by the fact that “some of them” had allied themselves with the Russian enemy and “carried out massacres against the Turkish people”. The deportations were aimed at “protecting them from the possibility of reprisals from the Turkish population (…) The allegations of genocide are baseless” he stressed.
The 90th Anniversary of the Armenian genocide come in the context of increased pressures on Turkey to recognise the genocide: on 19 April, the Polish Parliament, following on 15 other countries, mostly European, described the massacre as genocide and a debate was opened in the German Parliament. On 21 April, the German members of Parliament called on Turkey to face up to the blackest page in its past, as Germany has done for Nazism, an attitude, they assured Turkey, would contribute to its taking root in Europe. In addition, the President of the UDF, a French centre-right party, announced he was tabling a resolution before the European Parliament requiring that it should recognise the term “Armenian genocide” and raising the issue that its recognition by Turkey should be a condition of its possible membership of the European Union. The French Foreign Minister, Mr. Barnier asked the Luxembourg Presidency of the Union to remind Turkey of its duty of “memory” of the Armenian genocide during the meeting on 25 April in Luxembourg of the EU-Turkey Association Council. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, waved away the appeal made by his French opposite number. “That’s a matter of internal policy, of petty politics” Mr. Gul laconically replied to journalists who questioned him after the last meeting of the Association Council.
Furthermore, on 28 April, a Turkish Court began the trial of a Turkish Journalist of Armenian origin, who is being accused of having “insulted the Turks” in some remarks made three years earlier during a conference. Hrant Dink, Chief editor of the Armenian language weekly Agos, faces a three year prison sentence if found guilty by the Sanliurfa Court, where the Human and Minority Rights Conference had taken place. The trial is taking place over a reply he made to a question he was asked at the meeting about how he felt, when he was in primary school, about having to swear an oath that all pupils were obliged to recite every morning. This bit of “patriotic officialese” begins with the lines “I am a Turk, I am honest, I am hard working”. “I replied that I was a Turkish citizen, but an Armenian. And although I was honest and hard working, I was not a Turk but an Armenian”, the journalist explained. He pointed out that he had also criticised a verse of the Turkish National Anthem, which evokes “my heroic race”. “I explained that I did not want to sing that verse because I was against the use of the word race, which is likely to lead to discrimination” he added.
Widening the rights of minorities is one of the questions that Turkey must resolve beg=fore joining the European Union. Turkey, an officially a 99% Moslem country, recognised the Christian and Jewish minorities in the 1923 Lausanne Treaty that opened the way for the creation of the Turkish Republic on the ruins of the old Ottoman Empire. The Armenian community is now no more than 45,000 in this country of 71 million inhabitants; the Greeks are less than 5,000 and the Assyro0Chaldeans some thousand or so.
A mass grave containing several bodies has been discovered North of Baghdad, announced an official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) on 28 April. “A mass grave was discovered at Kifri, 150 Km North of Baghdad and, from first reports contains the remains of many women and children”, stated Aryan Rauf, responsible for Human Rights in the PUK. “The discovery was made on the site of an old Iraqi Army Camp and we have formed a commission of enquiry”, he added, without being able to tell with any certainty whether the or not the victims were Kurds. Kifri is, nevertheless, in Southern Kurdistan, just South of the Kurdish Autonomous Region.
Moreover, an official of the Shiite region of Nassiriyah, South-East of Baghdad, reported on 13 April the discovery of a mass grave going back to the dictatorship period. Several mass graves have been found in Iraq since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime two years ago, particularly in the Shiite South whose population was harshly repressed during the 1991 uprising which followed the defeat of the Iraqi forces after their invasion of Kuwait.
Up to March 2004, the US Army had recorded 259 mass graves containing some 300,000 bodies of people executed by the Baathist regime or killed in the wars started by Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s coming to power in 1979. But the full extent of the old regime’s exactions are still unknown, certain estimates put the figure of those killed at over a million.
On 20 April, the Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces criticised the United States for their powerlessness in the face of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), settled on the Iraqi Turkish borders and warned against any attempt by the Iraqi Kurds to take control of the oil producing city of Kirkuk. In a speech make in Istanbul, General Hilmi Ozkok complained of the growing influence of the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan. He added that, encouraged by the inaction of the Americans, the PKK activists had intensified their operations in Turkey from their Iraqi sanctuaries. The PKK “is on the list of terrorist organisations drawn up by the United States and Europe, but this doesn’t mean anything in practice” affirmed General Ozkok. “The PKK must be deprived of any foreign support”, he added.
The Chief of the Turkish General Staff declared he was worried at the Kurdish attempts to take control of Kirkuk, the centre of a region rich in oil resources. “It is important that Kirkuk have a special status, we have several times said that Kirkuk is a zone on the edge of an explosion and in the event of an explosion the whole region would be affected” he indicated. Turkey fears that the Iraqi Kurds might make Kirkuk the capital of a sovereign Kurdish state, stirring up the Kurdish nationalists in Turkey.
Furthermore, in the first part of his long annual speech reviewing the situation in Turkey and the world that he made to the Turkish Military Academy on 19 April, the Chief of the General Staff alluded to the “Great Middle East” project advocated by the Americans. He made the point that “Turkey is cited for its strategic position. Certain circles have wanted to present our country as a “model of moderate Islam”” and added: “About 99% of the Turkish population is Moslem. But Turkey is a state of laws, secular and democratic. It is neither a country of Islam nor an Islamic State. What they are forgetting is that the motor of the development of Turkish democracy is secularism”, he declared. The Chief of the Turkish Armed Forces General Staff insisted on the fact that “the Turkish Republic has no official religion. The Republic takes care not to mix religious preoccupations with State and world affairs and sees the progress of our nation, in step with the times, the sine qua non condition for success. Secular principles are the key values of the Turkish Republic. It is only with this quality that Turkey can be given as an example. One must bear in mind that the whole nation would rise up against the will of those who want to transform it into “a model of moderate Islam”.”
Hilmi Ozkok then wanted to return to the suicide bomb attacks of 15 and 20 November 2003, aimed at two synagogues, the British consulate and the local head office of the HSBC: “After the attacks, the radical groups, being under pressure and seeing the reactions felt obliged to win back popular sympathy and broaden their base (…) What we notice today is the extreme politicisation of tiny fundamentalist groups that have thrown themselves into a vast propaganda campaign using all possible and even unimaginable means(…) We observe a proliferation of radical religious groups, of fundamentalist political groups that skilfully use the area of freedom, of democracy and of republican tolerance by seeming to play the democratic game (…)”.
Then General Ozkok summoned Greece to apologise to Turkey for the insult to their national flag that took place in Athens, threatening that otherwise he would “revise” the Turco-Greek military cooperation. “We expect Greece to make official apologies for this incident”, he declared during his speech. The Chief of the General Staff was referring to an incident that had occurred the week before. On 11 April, some Turkish cadets on a visit to Athens found, in their rooms, a soiled Turkish flag covered with anti-Turkish remarks. In the absence of apologies, General Ozkok threatened to “revise” a programme of cooperation involving the exchange of army student cadets which form part of the bilateral “measures of confidence”.
The incident occurred on the very day that the Greek Foreign Minister, Petros Molyviatis, was visiting Ankara and announcing, with his Turkish opposite number, measures to put an end to the recurrent tension between the two countries. The General, moreover, attacked the increase in Greek military expenditure while affirming that his army was working to improve bilateral bonds.
On 12 April, a face-to-face confrontation between Greek and Turkish patrol boats off the islet of Imia, in the South-East of the Aegean (which had already been the scene of a serious crisis between the two countries in 1996) created a fresh incident between the two countries. A Turkish patrol boat had forced a Greek fishing boat to change its course while fishing near Imia. The Greek navy then sent one of its vessels and the two patrol boats faced one another off for several hours. The crisis was defused after discussions between Mr. Molyviatis and his Turkish opposite number Abdullah Gul, which resulted in both vessels being simultaneously withdrawn. Mr. Molyviatis subsequently defended his choice of remaining in Ankara despite the crisis.
On the Cyprus question, the General accused the European Union of failing to fulfil its promise of loosening the sanctions against the Turkish-Cypriot administrative entity in the North of the island (which has no international recognition). He also attacked the Greek-Cypriot administration (the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus), which became a member of the European Union on 1 May 2004. He accused it of exploiting Ankara’s wish to enter the E.U. as well to secure concessions on Cyprus. “For them, the success of this policy depends on making the Cypriot conflict permanent” he added.
During a visit to Athens on 18 April, the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, reminded Ankara that good relations with Greece were one of the conditions for Turkey’s entry into the European Union. “Total observance (of the rules and values of the E.U.) is a pre-condition for membership” affirmed Mr. Barroso following a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis. “Amongst these are the existence of good neighbour relations between all the member States and candidate countries” he declared. Mr Barroso praised “the attitude of the Greek government in favour of negotiations with Turkey, on condition that Turkey adhered to all the rules and values of the E.U.”. “We have chosen a difficult path”, stated Mr. Karamanlis referring to Athens’ support for Turkey’s candidacy and to his determination to improve relations with Ankara. “It is not a matter of a single battle — it’s a war, and we’re going to win it”, he added.
On 3 April, Kurdish party reported approaches made by the Syrian authorities to settle the problem of the Kurds from whom their identity cards and nationality had been withdrawn during a census in 1962. “The authorities have recently asked the registry offices in the Hassaké governorate (North-East Syria) to draw up a list of Kurds from whom nationality had been withdrawn”, indicated a communiqué signed by Aziz Da’ud, general secretary of the Progressive Democratic Kurdish Party (banned but tolerated). “These approaches have been made with the view of settling the problem of Kurds without nationality”, stressed the communiqué. “We ask President Bachar al-Assad to keep the promises he made regarding these Kurds, who now amount to over 250,000, during his visit to Hassaké in 2002”, the communiqué continues. Mr. Da’ud also paid tribute to “President Assad’s initiative in pardoning all the 312 Kurdish prisoners” arrested after the bloody clashes in March 2004.
The 4 April issue of the London based daily Al Hayat took up this news and stated that “the Syrian regime is putting the final touches to its project, which it will be announcing very shortly, of restoring Syrian nationality to some 300,000 Kurds from whom it had been withdrawn or refused since the Baath party came to power and adopted a policy of cleansing”. This project would be part of an overall plan of normalisation in Syria, the Damascus regime fearing that its weakening might push these populations to rebel. It thus decided to launch a project of rehabilitation of the Kurdish triangle, also known as the “the duck’s bill” which includes the Kurdish regions of Syria, on its borders with Iraq and Turkey. Sixty million dollars a year are to be devoted to this plan, according to the daily, with both Syrian and foreign financing (Italian and Spanish, as well as the UN Development Programme) and a contribution from Turkey. The daily further stresses that “the Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan, has ordered that an additional 93m3 a second be pumped from the Euphrates, to enable Syria to irrigate 150,000 hectares (over 350,000 acres)”. The daily concludes that, in the Kurdish triangle “2 million people live below the poverty threshold. Economic development of this region should prevent any vague Kurdish impulses hostile to Damascus”.
The Syrian Association for Human Rights (SAHR), however, is far from announcing that things have calmed down. It points out, in a communiqué issued on 7 April, that thirteen Syrians, eleven of them Kurds, died under torture in 2004 in the premises of various security services. “Five Kurds died under torture following demonstrations that took place at Qamechli; six other Kurds died in suspicious circumstances while doing their Army service and two Syrians died in the premises of the Criminal Security unit, attaché to the Ministry of the Interior” the association pointed out. “The practice of torturing people till they die of it is an extremely dangerous sign of the violation, by Syria, of international laws and agreements” it adds. The SAHR further reports that “the pursuance of arbitrary and illegal detentions in Syria, where nearly 445 citizens were arrested, some of them temporarily, in 2004”.
In July 2004 Syria adhered to the International Convention against torture but with reservations over the Committee charged with checking on the observance of this Convention by its signatories.
According to the report, there are still 2,000 political detainees in Syria, 270 of whom are in the Saydnaya Prison (30 Km from Damascus). The others are detained by the Security Services, including 800 in the hands of the Army Security and, more exactly of the “Palestine Branch” according to the SAHR. The Army Security is the largest of the country’s security services.
Furthermore, on 24 April, some 200 Syrians, including many Kurds, gathered outside the State Security Court where several trials were taking place, including that of Human Rights activist Aktham Nayssé, accused of “being opposed to the objectives of the revolution”. The State Security Court, a State of Emergency body, heard Mr. Nayssé’s lawyers, while several diplomats (US and Dutch) and international organisation representatives were present, according to Mr. Anouar Bounni. Notable amongst those present were Patrick Mutzenberg, of the World Organisation against Torture and a French lawyer, Emmanuel Altit, of Avocats sans frontiers (Lawyers without borders). The next hearing of the trial, which began in July 2004, is set for 26 June.
Aktham Nayssé, President of the Committees for the Defence of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria (CDDS) was arrested in April 2004 and detained for five months before being released on bail. Also accused of “leading actions contrary to the State’s socialist system”, Mr. Nayssé faces a sentence of between three years and life. In a communiqué, the CDDS described the State Security Court as “illegal and unconstitutional”. This trial “raises questions regarding the reforms being planned and on the capacity of the Syrian authorities to take up the challenges” abroad, the communiqué remarked. Affirming that the Human Rights situation in Syria is “regressing”, the CDDS also called for the “repeal of the State of Emergency laws and the abolition of the Special courts (…) at a time when the country is going through exceptional circumstances” — an allusion to American pressures on Syria.
The trial of a young Kurdish man, Shevan Abdo, arrested over a year ago following the bloody events in the Kurdish regions in March 2004, took place before the same Court. Several Human Rights activists displayed photos of the young Kurd and banners denouncing the “special emergency justice” and “the State of Emergency law”. On the arrival of Shevan Abdo in a police van, the demonstrators applauded and shouted “Freedom, freedom” while about fifty members of the anti-riot police isolated the area.
The Court also heard the defence lawyers of Massaab Hariri (19 years of age) who has been incarcerated for the last three years. His father is being hunted because of his membership of the Moslem Brothers, Mr. Bounni indicated. In this regard, Mr. Bounni called for “a general amnesty of all political detainees” as well as “the repeal of law 49” which prescribes the death penalty for membership of the Moslem Brothers.
The last sit-in organised by opponents and human rights activists goes back to 10 March. They had then accused the authorities of having prevented them from expressing themselves “peacefully” by “encircling” them with demonstrations of support for the regime.
• LEYLA ZANA RECOMMENDS A GENERAL AMNESTY FOR MEMBERS OF THE PKK, EVEN AS OVER TWENTY FIGHTERS WERE BEING KILLED IN SIRNAK. On 6 April, former member of parliament Leyla Zana, who was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights in 1995 by the European Parliament, recommended the Ankara government to declare a general amnesty for the thousands of members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considering that it would be a decisive advance towards putting an end to the violence in Turkish Kurdistan. “Disarming the young men in the mountains and leading them away from violence will create great synergies on the road to democracy” affirmed Mrs. Zana in a communiqué. “What should be done is to embrace our people and integrate them into political and social life through a democratic legislation” she continued. “Such a concrete advance will eliminate the breeding ground of violence and ease our country”.
Ankara has already proposed amnesties to the Kurdish fighters, but their results have been disappointing because of the conditions imposed to benefit from them, the Turkish authorities demanding a public act of repentance and making depositions regarding the party’s secret activities. Barely 250 activists have surrendered to the authorities since the proclamation of the last amnesty in 2003.
Elsewhere, some 205 delegates, meeting in congress since 28 March “somewhere in the mountains of Kurdistan” announced, according to the MHA news agency, basing itself on a communiqué from the organisation, the recreation of the PKK as from 4 April, the birthday of the movement’s founder, Abdullah Ocalan. “Our Congress, by purifying the PKK of its failings and mistakes, has taken to its conclusion its strong determination to leap forward into the future”, states the document quoted by MHA.
The PKK had dissolved itself in April 2002 to become Kadek (Congress for Democracy and Freedom of Kurdistan) with the aim of pursuing “the struggle for the liberation of the Kurds”. In November 2003 Kadek announced that it was taking the initiative of dissolving, re-naming itself Kongra-Gel and affirming that it had renounced “separatism”. At the end of June 2004, this latest emanation of the PKK ended the truce it had unilaterally decreed five years earlier after the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, who was sentenced to death before having his sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
Fighting, that had virtually stopped in Turkish Kurdistan have recommenced, even if their extent is far from recalling the clashes of the 90s. The governorate of Sirnak Province stated, in a communiqué published on 16 April that thirty-three Kurds had been killed since the end of March in the course of operations by Turkish security forces in the province. The troops are said to have also discovered several arms caches in which they had seized many rifles, ammunition and explosives added the communiqué, which made the point that ground operations were continuing with air support.
According to the private Turkish television network NTV of 28 April, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is still on the list of terrorist organisations detailed in the US State Department’s annual report on “world terrorism”. This report shows that the organisation still has about 4 to 5 thousand armed activists, 3,500 of whom are said to be based on Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK is said to enjoy the protection of Iran and receives financial support in Europe.
• KIRKUK: THE SETTING UP OF THE PROVINCIAL EXECUTIVE REMAINS STALLED BECAUSE OF RIVALRIES BETWEEN KURDS, ARABS ABD TURCOMEN. Rivalries between Kurds, Turcomen and Arabs have been blocking the setting up of a provincial executive for the last two months in Kirkuk. The Kurds, who hold the majority of seats, are prepared to offer the position of Deputy Governor to the Arabs or the Turcomen. “The ball is in their court to decide who will hold this post”, explained Mahmud Mohamed Ahmad, member of the Provincial Council and local leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), who deplores “the mentality of ethnic division” that he considers responsible for this blockage. Meanwhile, Arabs and Turcomen play for time. On 12 April, the Council held its fifth meeting, which no member of the Turcoman group attended. Two Arab members of the Council made a brief appearance at the last moment. “The population is frustrated, the man in the street doesn’t care about the Council’s composition, he wants those he elected to set to work, to deal with the questions of food supply, water and electricity” stated Colonel Gordon Petrie, of the 116 US Army Brigade, based on the outskirts of this oil producing city.
The council is dominated by those elected on the Kurdish Kirkuk-Fraternity List, the Turcomen having nine members and the Arabs six. At issue are the positions of Governor and his assistant as well as that of President (Chairman) of the Council. The Kurds are demanding that this province be included, with the existing three provinces, of the Kurdish autonomous region. Indeed, it borders on two of these provinces, Suleimaniyah and Irbil in any case. They put forward historic reasons for this but also the weight of their community in its population, whose balance had been upset by the policy of forced Arabisation of the region conducted by Baghdad as from the 60s. “There should have been a census taken last year but it was cancelled because the Arabs were furious that the Kurds were settling inhabitants back again”, explained Captain Kim Tschepen, who works in the intelligence section of the 116 Brigade. Initially, each list should have received a key post, the Kurds giving themselves that of Governor. But “the others went on the defensive and old animosities came to the surface” summed up Colonel Anthony Wickam, the 116 Brigade’s liaison officer with the council.
Kirkuk is “like Iraq in miniature. If one group comes to dominate the others the situation will become untenable” explained a provincial leader. “The situation is at a critical point”, calmly added Thasin Kahya, a Turcoman, former President of the Previous Council and now member of the present one, elected in the 30 January General Elections. However, as is so often the case in post-Saddam Iraq, still little used to any culture of compromise, all sides try to go one better before deciding on some intermediate solution.
• THE TURKISH PRESIDENT VISITS DAMASCUS DESPITE AMERICAN PRESSURE. On 13 April, the Turkish Head of State, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, arrived in Damascus for a two-day visit in the course of which he has discussions with his Syrian opposite number on regional questions and bilateral relations. Mr. Sezer, accompanied by his wife, was welcomed at Damascus Airport by the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faruk al-Chareh. A “popular” welcome greeted the Turkish President at Damascus Airport where “hundreds of Syrian and Turkish schoolchildren welcomed Mr. Sezer and his wife, waving flags of the two countries as well as banners hailing relations between the two neighbouring and friendly countries” added the Syrian News Agency SANA. Syria is being subjected to much US pressure since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Turkish President has stuck to his visit despite American pressure on Turkey to limit its cooperation with its Southern neighbour. The official Syrian media, consequently, paid exaggerated tribute to the Turkish Head of State. “The Turkish President’s visit is most important for Syria, particularly after Mr. Sezer’s courageous, bold and wise stand in insisting on making this visit despite crude pressures exerted by the United States and their flagrant meddling in the affairs of a great regional country” wrote the pro-government paper Techrine on 13 April. “Syrio-Turkish cooperation has enormously developed, particularly during the meetings of Iraq’s neighbouring countries regarding the Arab region and the peace process” in the Near East added the daily. It further affirmed that “in Syria Mr. Sezer is in his second country”. The official paper of the party in power, Al-Baath, also considered that it was “an extremely important visit (…) that will crown the rapprochement that has taken place between the two countries” over the last five years.
In March, the US Ambassador to Turkey, Eric Edelman, had called on Ankara to join the appeals to Syria, launched by the international community, to withdraw its troops from the Lebanon, a declaration perceived as a veiled warning against Mr. Sezer’s journey.
Turkey and Syria have clearly improved their formerly stormy relations since 1998 — a year in which the two countries found themselves on the brink of war. Ankara had accused Damascus of sheltering Kurdish activists who were fighting the Turkish government. The crisis was resolved with the expulsion of Abdullah Ocalan by Damascus followed by its signing a security agreement with Ankara committing itself to stop supporting Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey has sought to establish closer links with Syria since the US intervention in Iraq, in particular by strengthening trade links, despite Washington’s warnings. There have been increasing visits. Mr. Assad paid a historic visit to Ankara in January 2004, crowning an improvement in relations and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Damascus last December. The use of the waters of the Euphrates and the status of the Turkish province of Hatay, over which Damascus claims sovereignty, remain, however, thorny questions to be resolved.
`We had useful and fruitful discussions aimed at consolidating political, economic, trade and cultural cooperation” indicated President Sezer in a speech published by the press. “In our meetings we stressed (…) the necessity of pursuing efforts to preserve the national unity of the Lebanon” the Turkish president added. The two Heads of State said they were satisfied with the level of political and economic relations between Syria and Turkey. “We have achieved an important development in our relations of cooperation on the bilateral and regional levels, because of the common determination” of the two countries, affirmed the Syrian President. “The positive and permanent evolution of Syrio-Turkish relations reassures us. It allows the promotion of cooperation in other different areas”, Mr. Sezer affirmed for his part. Before leaving, Mr. Sezer, accompanied by his wife, visited the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, on Mount Kassion, overlooking the Syrian capital, and the Umayyad Mosque in the old city of Damascus.
• UNO: TWO INVESTIGATORS EMPLOYED BY THE INDEPENDENT COMMISSION OF ENQUIRY RESIGN FROM THE VOLKER COMMISSION ON THE “OIL FOR FOOD” PROGRAMME. The UN “Oil for Food” scandal in Iraq, a source of increasing embarrassment for the United Nations since its revelation in January 2004, has suffered another episode with the resignation of two investigators employed by the independent Commission of Enquiry. These two investigators, Robert Parton and Miranda Duncan, resigned “because they had finished the work for which they had been recruited” declared a Commission spokes person on 21 April. She refused to make any comment on the reports that appeared the same day in the American press according to which they had resigned because the Commission’s last interim report was too lenient with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. “The policy of the Commission is not to make any comments on these very sensitive questions”, she declared. The day before, the Commission’s spokesman, Michael Holtzman, had declared in a communiqué that “the interim reports contained the collective judgements of the Commission”. “All the evidence on which these judgements are founded are contained in these reports. The Commission has no other comment to make”, he added.
In his last interim report, published on 29 March, the Commission, led by Paul Volker, a former President of the US Central Bank, had cleared Mr. Annan of any suspicion of corruption in the “Oil for Food” scandal. It revealed that there had been no influence peddling on Mr. Annan’s part in the attributions of UN contracts to a company that employed his son, Kojo. But the document called Kojo Annan’s behaviour into question and criticised the Secretary General himself for not having taken sufficient precautions to ensure that there was no conflict of interest in his son’s affairs. The Commission also pointed a finger at Mrs Annan’s assistants, one of whom is accused of having destroyed three years of documentation of the “Oil for Food” programme.
This programme had been set up to enable Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, between 1996 and 2003, although under an embargo, to sell some oil so as to buy some goods essential to its population. It had been perverted by Saddam’s regime and millions of dollars had been embezzled. In February, a first interim report of the Volker Commission had implicated the former director of the programme, Benon Sevan, accused of having “damaged UNO’s integrity” by intervening in the granting of contracts.
On 20 April, UNO announced the suspension of Kofi Annan’s advisor for North Korea, the Canadian Maurice Strong, who was personally targeted by the enquiry. Mr. Strong stated he had never had anything to do with the “Oil for Food” programme, but acknowledged have had dealings with a Korean businessman, Park Tong-sun, charged the week before in the context of this affair. Mr. Park is, in particular, accused of having received Iraqi money to “look after” two top UN officials, so far unidentified.
On 21 April, Henry Hyde, Chairman of the International Relations Commission of the US House of Representatives, who is also investigating the affair, announced that he had sent a letter to Mr. Volker asking that his final report, due in the summer, “answer questions raised by the charges made last week”. Mr. Hyde hopes to know, in particular, “whether the two so far unidentified high UN officials had received any kick-backs”.
UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, considered that the United States and Great Britain, shared part of the responsibility in the case of the Iraqi “Oil for Food” programme by having allowed uncontrolled oil exports of oil from which Saddam Hussein had profited. Kofi Annan, who was speaking at a conference on the UN and the media, considered that the greater part of the money that Saddam Hussein had won came from oil sold to Jordan and Turkey, outside the framework of the “Oil for Food” programme. Only countries like the US and Britain had the forces available to prevent certain oil sales. But, stressed Mr. Annan, these countries “had decided to close their eyes to Turkey and Jordan because they were allies”. Kofi Annan recognised that the reason for that was understandable and that no one had the necessary funds to compensate Iraq’s neighbours for their losses due to the UN sanctions, imposed in 1990 after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Charles Duelfer, a CIA arms inspector, calculated that the corruption in the “Oil for Food” programme, which was mainly effected by the inflation of prices for goods supplied to Iraq, amounted to some 1.7 billion dollars. But where the Iraqi had mainly enriched themselves was in pocketing the billions of dollars in kickbacks on oil exports effected outside of the “Oil for Food” programme. “The essential part of the money Saddam made came from deals outside the “Oil for Food” programme. This was done when the Americans and Britain were supervising” Kofi Annan pointed out.
Furthermore, the UN Security Council declared, on 11 April, UNO envisaged giving some help to constitutional process in Iraq. In a statement, the Security Council Chairman, the Chinese representative Wang Guangya, affirmed that the members of the Council supported the plans drawn up by the UN Special Representative, Ashraf Qazi, to strengthen the UN presence in Irbil and Basra and, if necessary, grant help to the country’s constitutional process.
• THE AMERICAN ARMS INSPECTION TEAM IN IRAQ ANNOUNCES THAT NO FORBIDDEN EQUIPMENT HAS BEEN FOUND. In his final report, Charles Duelfer, the CIA agent leading the American arms inspection team in Iraq, the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) announced that the search for weapons of mass destruction had been pushed “as far as possible” without any forbidden equipment being found. The presumed possession of WMDs by the Saddam Hussein regime had been the principal argument put forward by Washington and London for launching a “preventive war” in March 2003.
The head of the ISG points out in a 92-page report published on Internet on 25 April, as a supplement to the 1,500 pages published last autumn, that he had also found no evidence that such weapons had been hidden in Syria before the US intervention. He nevertheless did not exclude the secret transfer of a limited amount of equipment linked to such WMDs. “In the present state of affairs, the ISG investigation has gone as far as possible. After more than 18 months, the investigation on the WMD and the interrogation of detainees linked to WMDs have (been carried out) in an exhaustive” manner, writes Charles Duelfer. The search for WMDs, for its part, had mobilised, at its peak, over a thousand army and civilian translators, arms experts and other specialists.
Nevertheless, Charles Duelfer considered that “to the extent that an isolated individual can carry out certain WMD activities, it remains an major anxiety”. He stressed that the Iraqi programmes had trained a certain number of weapons experts and that “hostile foreign governments, terrorists or insurgents could seek to use Iraqi expertise”. He also added that the armed forces in Iraq might continue to find small amounts of spoilt chemical weapons, overlooked by mistake after the 1991 Gulf War and which some insurgents might use to terrorise, even though they were no longer effective.
The ISG found, moreover, that equipment that could be used to make nuclear material “had disappeared from badly damaged and plundered sites” but that the insecurity reigning in Iraq had prevented the investigators to discover what had become of this equipment. Mr. Duelfer considered that if arms were, after all, to be discovered, they would be more likely to be biological. According to an American official who prefers to be unnamed, a limited team is continuing to operate with the multinational forces in Iraq, even though the ISG was officially disbanded this month.
• THE TURKISH AUTHORITIES CANCEL THE WORK PERMIT OF AN AUSTRIAN TEACHER BECAUSE HE HAD USED THE WORD KURDISTAN. A teacher in an Austrian secondary school in Istanbul had his work permit cancelled by the Turkish authorities for having used the word “Kurdistan” in a lesson, according to the news medias in Vienna. Gerhard Pils, a biology teacher at St George College, a Catholic Secondary School in Istanbul, stated on the Austrian public radio Oe1 that he had involuntarily aroused the indignation of Turkish pupils and their parents by mentioning a family holiday spent in Turkish “Kurdistan”. “Two of the pupils rose shouting: “We will kill all those who want a Kurdistan”” and they were not the only ones to express their indignation at this, nevertheless harmless, remark, he testified on 11 April.
Briefly suspended by his management, Mr. Pils was then subject of an order from the Turkish authorities, cancelling his work permit for “threatening the security of the State” according to the weekly Profil. The Assistant Director of St. George College, Alexander Zabini, confirmed the incident on the radio. Mr. Pils, who had apologised to the Turkish authorities, declared he had used the word Kurdistan “without any ulterior motive” as it was “a geographic designation frequently used in botany”.
Turkey claims to have granted “cultural rights” to the Kurds at the request of the European Union — but ant allusion to Kurdish history of to Kurdistan remains taboo and the real observance of Human Rights remains a major issue even as negotiations for membership are due to begin with Ankara in October 2005. At the end of March, a Turkish court had ordered the release on bail of an Austrian woman journalist, Sandra Kabutz, who has since returned to Vienna after serving seven weeks in prison without trial, accused of “membership of an illegal extreme Left Turkish group”.
• EIGHTH MINISTERIAL MEETING OF COUNTRIES NEIGHBOURING IRAQ IN ISTANBUL. The eighth official meeting of countries bordering on Iraq, which had been twice postponed because of the delays taken in forming the Iraqi government, took place in Istanbul on 30 April. The Foreign Ministers of the six bordering countries (Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey) met in Istanbul to welcome the formation of the new Iraqi Government but also to discuss their fears of the spread of violence in the region.
The stability of Iraq is “not just a problem for the Iraqis but is also ours” warned the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who opened the conference in the former Dolmabahçe Ottoman Palace. The head of the Turkish government considered it “essential” that the Iraqi government “be fully representative”. “Iraq cannot be a place where one community dominates the others, nor a place that can be carved up at will” he added. “Such attempts will give rise to reactions from countries of the region and of the international community” he pointed out.
With the exception of Iran, Iraq’s neighbours, which have Sunni majorities, are worried at the loss of power by the Sunni Arabs and at the growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Turkey, Syria and Iran, which also have substantial Kurdish populations, are worried at the growing political importance of the Kurds, fearing that they create their own State and so fuel nationalist aspirations in their own States.
The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, represented his country at the Istanbul summit, the Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari being held back in Baghdad to “complete” his new government. Confirmed in his position on 28 April, Mr. Zebari affirmed “we believe that Iraq’s neighbours have a crucial role to play in the stabilisation of Iraq and the region”. Besides regional cooperation, the Foreign Minister stated that the issue of “infiltration of foreign fighters and terrorists” into Iraq and that of the military and financial help they were receiving was tackled. The Iraqi government has several times complained about the infiltration of Arab and foreign fighters that, its claims, enter via Syria to help the guerrilla.
Furthermore, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Farul al-Chareh, announced on 30 April that his country was going to establish diplomatic relations with Iraq, after 20 years during which relations between the two countries had been suspended. According to the official Syrian news agency, SANA, Mr. al-Chareh declared during a closed session of the meeting that measures to re-establish diplomatic relations would be taken as soon as possible. Relations between Damascus and Baghdad had deteriorated after Syria supported Iran in 1980 in the Iraq-Iran war. Diplomatic relations were formally broken in 1982.
• IRAN: CLASHES IN THE PREDOMINANTLY ARAB PROVINCE OF KHUZISTAN. In April, the province of Khuzistan (South-West Iran) and in particular the town of Ahvaz, were the scene of riots and clashes between the police and the population, in this predominantly Arab region. These riots were unleashed following rumours about an alleged letter by a former close advisor of President Khatemi, in which the latter is said to have suggested “Persianising” the Arabic place names in the region as well as proposing population transfers so as to alter the ethnic composition of this province. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former liaison secretary between the Presidency and Parliament (the Majlis) denied any involvement and it turns out that the rumour was false. In the special context of the Presidential election campaign, due on 17 June next, the members of the conservative majority in the Majlis as well as the Republic’s Public Prosecutor, Ghorbanali Dari Najaf Abadi used the incident to attack Abtahi and the Administration, still partly controlled by the reformers. On April 20, the Public Prosecutor of the town of Ahvaz, Amir Khani, announced the release of about 200 of the demonstrators, out of 344 who had been arrested. According to the latest official assessment, five people were killed in the clashes between the security forces and the Arabs, who make up the majority of the Khuzistan population.
The official line on the riots is that they were signs of foreign intervention, accusing the Arabic Television network Al Jazira. Others, on the other hand, see in these events a plot woven by the conservatives to weaken still further President Khatami and his government less than two months before a decisive Presidential Election. Teheran has decided to suspend the activity of the Pan-Arab Al-Jazira network in its soil. The Qatar-based network has been ordered to cease all operations on Iranian territory and to close its Teheran office. Already forbidden on Iraqi soil, the Qatari network, that does not hesitate to give time to opponents of the Middle Eastern regimes, has already had problems with the authorities of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan.
On the other hand, on 3 April, Iraq opened one of its principal border posts with Iran, but the Islamic Republic has advised its citizens against any trips to Iraq because of the security there. The Shalamsheh crossing (South-West Iran), which faces Basra, (South-East Iraq), closed by the Iraqis on 28 March, has been re-opened, stated Mohammad Ali Shirali, Governor of Khorramshahr, the major Iranian city neighbouring Shalamsheh. According to the Iranian media, this decision, taken without consultation or explanation, had blocked many pilgrims on their way to the Shiite holy places in Iraq to celebrate the 40th day of the Ashura mourning, the most important Shiite religious festival. However, “only those holding a visa can visit Iraq via Shalamsheh, but we advise them to renounce it because of the security situation in the country” the Governor added. The warnings by the Islamic Republic’s authorities do not dissuade the Iranians, especially the pilgrims, from undertaking the journey, even illegally. Six of the twelve Imams venerated by the Shiites (who form the majority of the population of Iran and Iraq) are buried in Iraq.
• ABOUT FORTY KURDS ON HUNGER STRIKE IN BELGIUM FOR NEARLY A MONTH SUSPEND THEIR ACTION. About forty Kurds, who have been on hunger strike for nearly a month in Belgium, to demand the right to remain in the country, have suspended their action after securing assurances that their cases would be re-examined.
Thirty-three of the hunger strikers had started their action on 29 March in the Minimes Church, a few yards from the Brussels Central Court, and had been joined in their movement by seven others at the “Petit Chateau”, a reception centre for asylum seekers in Brussels, and four others in the Walloon country. In the course of a long meeting with representatives of the hunger strikers, the Minister of the Interior, Patrick Dewael, till then inflexible, accepted, for humanitarian reasons, to suspend for two months the “orders to leave the country” issued against some of them.
The former hunger strikers could use this time to file fresh requests for asylum with the Belgium official organs. Originally from Turkish Kurdistan, they affirm that they cannot return to their country because of the persecutions to which they have been subjected. “We are glad that the Minister has received and listened to us. We hope that with the new events that took place in Turkey in 2004, the hunger strikers will not have to return there” declared a spokesman after the meeting with the Minister.
During their hunger strike, the Kurds, whose state o health has seriously suffered, received the support of the movement against racism, several Belgian political parties and some Members of the European Parliament. They are now under medical attention for adapting themselves to taking food.
• TURKEY SIGNS MILITARY CONTRACTS WITH THE US FOR 1.1 BILLION DOLLARS AND WITH THE ISRAELIS FOR 200 MILLION DOLLARS. On 26 April, he Turkish Minister of Defence, Vecdi Gonul, announced that the US aerospace giant, Lockheed Martin, was going to modernise Turkish Air Force’s fleet of F-16s — a contract worth some 1.1 billion dollars (847.5 million euros) following an agreement between Ankara and Washington. The project will begin next July and should end in 2012 he indicated during a joint press conference with US Ambassador Eric Edelman.
The agreement for modernising the avionic equipment and weaponry of the F-16s covers 117 planes in the first instance with an option on 100 others. “This agreement is the best proof that our relations are on the right road”, stressed the Minister referring to the tension between the two NATO allies, particularly over Iraq. “We have been allies and strategic partners for 50 years (…) Our partnership is continuing on a solid basis of mutual understanding and interests”, Mr Gonul was pleased to announce. Turkish firms will contribute to this project in different ways, to the extent of some 400 million dollars. “This Project benefits Turkey and it benefits the United States”, indicated the US Ambassador for his part, hoping that military bonds between the two countries would develop still more. “We want a strong Turkey inside NATO”, he added.
The Turkish Air Force intends to use these F-16s till about 2040. Meanwhile they are due to be gradually replaced by the future JSF fighter (Joint Strike Fighter) — an international project to which Turkey is contributing.
Furthermore, Israel will supply the Turkish Army with tactical support drones worth 200 million dollars, according to the 19 April edition of the Israeli daily Haaretz. The Israeli Air Industries (IAI) and the Elbit company, that were in competition with French and American companies for this contract, will supply the Turkish Army with thirty to forty UAV drones and about a dozen ground guidance stations, according to the paper. These aircraft are already operational with the Israeli forces. The Turkish Minister for the Defence chose the Heron drone, fitted with multiple functions, which is specialised for surveillance and reconnaissance missions and which can fly for 52 hours non-stop and reach an altitude of 9,000 metres (30,000 feet).
The strategic partnership between Israel and Turkey was sealed in 1996 by a military cooperation agreement. This agreement, attacked by the Arabs and Iran, was followed by a net development of economic and cultural exchanges between the two countries, the bilateral trade having reached 2 billion dollars by 2004, an increase of 33% over the year before.
• TURKEY AND THE IMF FINALISE A NEW LINE OF CREDIT FOR 10 BILLION DOLLARS. On 29 April, the Director General pf the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Roderigo de Rato, welcomed the economic performance of Turkey and stated that the IMF would continue to support the country. “The government’s programme, applied with the support of the IMF, has produced the best economic performance for a generation” declared Mr. de Rato in Istanbul at the end of an international investment meeting that brought together representative of nineteen international firms from eleven countries. Recalling that Turkey had recently signed a letter of intent for a new stand-bye agreement with the IMF, the Director stated that he rejoiced “at the perspective of a new arrangement with the IMF to support this performance”. Mr. de Rato predicted an influx of foreign investments to Turkey “breaking all records” in 2005.
On 12 April, Turkey and the IMF finalised a new line of credit for 10 billion dollars that only needs the final approval by the institution’s executive committee. Ankara and the IMF had agreed in December for this new line of credit that is to be spread over three years. The previous IMF credit, covering 16 billion dollars, had been granted in 2002, following the very serious economic crisis that had struck the country the year before. It came to an end in February. The Turkish economy recorded a growth of 9.9% in 2004 with a rate of inflation of 9.32% — less than the predicted 12%.
However, on 29 April the Turkish President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, vetoed a law on the reform of the tax administration demanded by the IMF. This law, which substantially alters the administrative system for collecting taxes, is part of the legal amendments demanded by the Fund to release the new 10 billion dollar line of credit for Turkey. Mr. Sezer’s argued his rejection on the fact that the new law stipulates that the top officials of the Treasury will no longer be appointed by the Head of State, as previously, and stresses that this procedure ensues from a “constitutional obligation”. The President of the Republic can only veto a law once, if Parliament passes this law in the same terms, Mr. Sezer will be obliged to promulgate it, though he may still refer the matter to the Constitutional Court.
• THE FORMER US AMBASSADOR TO AFGHANISTAN IS APPOINTED TO IRAQ. The US State Department has confirmed the next appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad, at present US Ambassador to Afghanistan, to the post of Ambassador to Iraq. The news was announced on 5 April by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a ceremony in the presence of the man concerned. This man, closely associated with George Bush, will succeed John Negroponte in the most exposed posting in American diplomacy. Negroponte, promoted, in February, to the newly created post of National Director of Intelligence, responsible for the coordination of the different US intelligence agencies. “I will work with all the Iraqis, all the religions, all the ethnic groups, with men and women, to accelerate success in Iraq” declared Khalilzad. “By success we mean an Iraq capable of standing on its own feet in terms of security for its people, control of its borders, supplying basic services such as education and health and the creation of a framework suited to the development of the private sector” he stressed.
The White House has still to secure the official confirmation of his appointment by the Senate. Before being appointed to Afghanistan, Khalilzad has been itinerant ambassador to the “free Iraqis”, responsible for contacts with the opposition in exile. Mr. Khalilzad, an American of Afghan origin, 54 years of age, played a key role in George Bush’s foreign policy by setting up the structures of the Afghan government, led by Hamid Karzai. Having a past in the oil industry (Unocal), the State Department and the Pentagon, Mr. Khalilzad, nicknamed “Zal” in Washington, has a good knowledge of the Iraqi situation.
• ANKARA ENDS ITS BOYCOTT OF SWILL MILITARY EQUIPMENT. On 29 April, the Turkish daily, Hurriyet, announced that Ankara was ending its boycott of Swiss military equipment, a month after the decision of the Swiss authorities to normalise procedures. The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDAE) welcomed this decision. For the FDAE this showed “a more open spirit and a greater tolerance by Turkey of divergent opinions expressed by other states”. Ankara’s announcement comes a month after the decision of the Swiss government to normalise procedures for arms exports to Turkey. This measure had been announced at the end of March, on the eve of the visit of the head of the Swiss Foreign Office, Micheline Calmy-Rey to Turkey. The Federal Council had announced at that time that it would no longer examine all requests for the export of war material to Turkey and that ordinary procedures would apply once again. In other words that it would be the State Economic Secretariat (Seco) that would authorise or not the exports, in accordance with the DFAE. The Seco, which also welcomed Ankara’s decision to lift its boycott, points out that requests for exports had already been reaching it since 24 March and that they were being examined.
Relations between Switzerland and Turkey have been tense over the last couple of years, in particular because the National Council (the Swiss lower House) had recognised the Armenian genocide in 2003. Apart from Switzerland, Ankara has also removed from its “red list” the remaining two countries, Austria and Sweden. Because of the process of applying for E.U. membership, boycotts against members States of the E.U. had become embarrassing, explained government sources quoted by the Turkish daily.
In 1991, the Swiss Government had declared Turkey a “crisis zone” during the first Gulf War. The Swiss had reacted against the raids by the Turkish Armed forces against Kurdish fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan. Since then, the Federal Council has only authorised some arms exports “intended for private persons and used for personal defence or shooting for sport”. Swiss firms, nevertheless continued to sell equipment to Turkey in the context of deliveries previously approved until 1995, when Ankara placed Switzerland on its “red list” of countries whose arms companies would be boycotted. For the Federal Council, the situation had “considerably improved” over the last few years. It quotes as proof the fact that the European Union has accepted to start negotiations for membership with Ankara.
Many EU countries have already lifted their restrictions on delivery of war material to Turkey and, in 2003, had authorised exports for a total of 780 million Euros.