Ocalan call marks more progress for Kurds in Mideast

Abdullah Ocalan's ceasefire call marks a key turning point for the Kurdish nation that 25 years ago was hit by the deadliest use of chemical weapons ever and had begun an armed conflict for independence.

The ceasefire call, set out in a letter penned by the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) from his isolated island cell, raises hopes for a permanent end to a three-decade conflict with Turkey that has cost tens of thousands of lives, most of them Kurds.

But though it is the latest in a series of positive steps, Kurdish populations in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran still face serious long-term questions over the relationships their regions will have to often unsympathetic central governments.

The ceasefire call "will have momentous implications for the broader Kurdish movements in the region," said Jane Kinninmont of London-based Chatham House.

"It may signal that there are more options for Kurdish aspirations to be strengthened within the existing regional state system."

But, she noted, "there is a tension between the idealism of these dreams (of a pan-Kurdish state) and the realism of political leaders operating within the Middle East system of nation-states that are all multi-ethnic and multi-religious but have latent fears of their own fragmentation."

Originally of Indo-European origin, Kurds in the Middle East are predominantly Sunni Muslim and number between 25 and 35 million, with a language and cultural system that make them distinct from Arabs, Turks and Persians.

They are therefore often seen as a threat by all the four countries they principally inhabit, experiencing a long history of harassment, discrimination and occasionally outright slaughter.

Kurds enjoyed periods of self-rule in semi-autonomous principalities in previous centuries, but while their demands for an independent homeland were given treaty recognition following World War I, such pledges were never implemented.

Aside from Iran's Kurds briefly declaring an independent republic following World War II, the ethnic group has over decades faced ruthless oppression in the Middle East.

Until 2002, Turkey banned the use of the Kurdish language, with the words Kurd and Kurdish barred in public discourse, while Iraq's now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein carrying out a bloody campaign of wiping out towns and villages.

Most notably, towards the end of the Iraq-Iran war in 1988, Iraqi warplanes attacked the Kurdish village of Halabja, killing an estimated 5,000 people in what is now thought to have been the worst ever gas attack targeting civilians.

"I grew up in Iraq until my 20s... but I grew to hate that country," Shwan Zulal, a London-based political consultant specialising in Kurdistan, told AFP.

Zulal, who grew up in Iraqi Kurdistan's second city of Sulaimaniyah but left for London in 1994, recalled having to once pay money to receive his uncle's body after he had been executed.

"How can you identify with a state that does that to you? There are those scars," he said. "When somebody tries to take your identity from you, you hold on much harder, much tighter."

But in the years since the Halabja massacre, Iraq's Kurds have taken steps to consolidate their autonomy, and made moves towards economic independence from Baghdad following the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam.

The conflict in Syria, meanwhile, that has pitted embattled President Bashar al-Assad against rebels for more than two years has sparked hopes the country's Kurdish population will be able to carve out a similarly autonomous region of its own, away from the violence plaguing the rest of Syria.

And Ocalan's ceasefire call has mooted the prospect of a long-lasting peace in a country where government forces and PKK separatist rebels have long clashed.

Progress has, however, been limited in Iran, where the western province of Kordestan has seen deadly clashes between Iranian security forces and the PJAK Kurdish rebel group, which operates out of rear-bases in neighbouring Iraq.

"It may be too early for us to judge and to predict, but the important thing is that there have been some positive developments and steps in the right direction," Falah Mustafa, head of the foreign affairs department in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, told AFP.

"I am positive and optimistic," he added, "because 25 years ago, we were gassed with chemical weapons."

"We suffered."