There are 20 to 25 million Kurds, by some estimates, scattered over parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia, but up to half live in southeastern Turkey. They comprise the largest ethnic group out of Turkey's total population of 63 million, and in many of Turkey's southeastern provinces, they form a majority of the population (Joshua Black, Princeton, 2004).
On October 21, 2006, the Turkish Daily News reported that more than 3 million of those Turkish Kurds had signed a declaration proclaiming loyalty to jailed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, even though Ankara sees him as the "country's number one terrorist." Ocalan, a brutal Maoist revolutionary who often targeted civilians, had been captured in 1999 by elite Turkish forces in Nairobi, Kenya, with intelligence assistance from the U.S. and Israel, while under Greek diplomatic protection. After his return to Turkey, he was quickly sentenced to death by hanging, but the Ankara government subsequently repealed the death penalty so as to conform to human rights standards of the European Union, to which Turkey hopes to join, and the death sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Although Ocalan has been serving his life sentence in isolation as the only inmate on the prison island of Imrali, he still weilds a strange influence over the PKK, issuing calls for unilateral ceasefires which are routinely obeyed, the last given as recently as October 1, 2006, even though Ankara has not only ignored the peace overtures, but has stepped up its efforts to crush the rebel forces.
While the Kurdish guerrilla forces in Iraq and Iran are known as the Peshmerga, those rebel Kurds fighting in Turkey call themselves the Hezen Parastina Gel, the People's Defense Forces. Ankara not only sends its own forces on search and destroy missions into the mountainous hideouts in southeastern Turkey, it has asked the new Iraqi government and the United States to lend assistance in rooting out PKK members using northern Iraq as a sanctuary.
Yet in October of 2005, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, suggested Ankara give a general amnesty to PKK rebels as a way to end the fighting. The European Union has also made improving Kurdish rights a condition to Ankara's membership process. Turkish Kurds of southeastern Turkey simply trying to go about their lives hope the government will likewise give up violence and begin to provide needed concessions to legitimate Kurdish grievances.
There is even an international movement started by intellectuals and civil rights organizations to free Abdullah Ocalan, and in May of 2005, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg ruled that Ocalan's trial by Turkish authorities was "unfair."
Whether it is a freed Abdullah Ocalan or simply his successor, there is no doubt the Turkish Kurds are willing to follow a charismatic leader in the fight for Kurdish rights in southeastern Anatolia, the region in which Ankara has invested heavily through the building of dams, the Ataturk dam being the most noteable, so as to develop the area for agriculture and other economic development for the betterment of the republic. But with the success of Iraqi Kurds in setting up a thriving autonomous state in northern Iraq, the Turkish Kurds may now be looking for more than simply concessions.