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Kurds hold a banner with a symbol of the illegal Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) during a demonstration in Duesseldorf, April 26, 1997. Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Kurdistan: Raised Hopes, Empty Promises

The dilemma of the Kurds in the Middle East can be put off no longer; it has now placed itself high on the agenda of Middle East policy. For the first time in modern history, control over the Kurdish problem has slipped out of the grasp of all regional parties as Kurdish politics has taken on a momentum of its own. The Kurds, the fourth-largest nationality in the Middle East, are now bang-

ing on the door of national recognition and self-determination--with the most serious of consequences for the states in which they live. But the impact of the new Kurdish political momentum has also brought a host of post-Cold War issues to the forefront of Middle East concerns: the challenge of breakaway ethnic movements, human rights, treatment of minorities, democracy, cultural autonomy, federalism and possibly the creation of new states out of the territorial unity of the old. The Middle East is not likely to be the same again.

The Kurds had slipped off the pages of history over the past fifty years: their national aspirations were long suppressed by European imperial powers and later by modern Middle Eastern states. To be sure, various Kurdish guerrilla forces regularly served the external powers as a handy tool with which to weaken local regimes. The British helped foment trouble in Turkish Kurdistan in the 1920s; the Americans and the Israelis supported the Kurds against the Iraqi Baath regime in the 1970s; the Syrians have periodically assisted Kurds against Turkey and Iraq. Iran-under both the shah and the ayatollahs--enlisted the Iraqi Kurds in Tehran's geopolitical struggle against Iraq. And Baghdad in turn has regularly supported the Iranian Kurds against the Islamic Republic. Almost invariably, however, once the Kurds no longer served the immediate political goals of the external powers, they have been abandoned.

The idea of an independent Kurdish state has only once been seriously entertained in modern times. The Kurds are an ancient people in the Middle

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