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The Kurds are waging three wars - against the Turks, the Iraqis and each other.

Their struggle for self-determination is so hopeless that Kurdish guerrilla fighters call themselves Pesh Merga, "the men who face death."They've been betrayed so often they have a proverb: "The Kurds have no friends."

But they can also be their own worst enemies.

Persecuted and discriminated against by the Turks, separatists of the Trotskyite Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) have lost whatever sympathy they may have garnered in the international community with acts of terrorism in an 11-year war for independence in Turkey's southeastern provinces.

Victims of genocide in northern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein has tried to wipe them out with poison gas and periodic offensives by his Republican Guard, two rival Kurdish factions have sorely tried Western patience with a savage internecine war in their U.N.-protected "safe zone."

Pentagon generals bemoan the fact that NATO jets are flying air cover for the Kurds just so they can kill each other.

Their infighting has undermined the Iraqi National Congress, a CIA-backed umbrella body for all Iraqi opposition groups seeking to topple Saddam. And it has reinforced the belief of Iraq's neighbors that no matter how distasteful they find Saddam, he is at least holding his country together; without him the region would be more unstable.

The melange of Kurdish con-flicts also has created one of the Middle East's strangest par-a-doxes:

NATO member Turkey gives sanctuary to Kurdish refugees from Iraq, and helps protect those in the U.N. "safe zone" by providing base facilities for U.S. and other allied jets patrolling Iraqi skies north of the 36th Parallel.

At the same time, NATO member Turkey actively colludes with Baghdad in going after PKK guerrillas who operate from Iraqi bases - and openly violates the economic embargo imposed on Iraq by the United Nations during the Persian Gulf War.

Turkey buys smuggled Iraqi oil, in return for which Saddam lets the Turks invade Iraq whenever they feel like it. But Turkey recently antagonized Baghdad by trying to convince the Iraqi Kurds to deny sanctuary to the Turkish Kurds of the PKK.

The Kurds are a distinct Indo-European race with their own deeply rooted language, culture and history stretching back 4,000 years. They form the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East after Arabs, Persians and Turks - but they haven't had their own country since 55O B.C.

Before World War I they were split between two empires: Ottoman and Persian. After the war they were split between four states: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, with a sprinkling on the southern edges of the former Soviet Union - in what are now the Caucasian republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Unfortunately, much of the land they call home sits atop rich oil deposits. This alone tempts regional powers to try to solve the "Kurdish problem" with periodic extermination campaigns - a genocide occurs every decade or so - making it hard to get an accurate population count. The current guess is that there are between 22 million and 25 million Kurds.

The closest they came to achieving statehood was in 1920, when the Treaty of Sevres called for the creation of an independent Kurdistan. But Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk violently opposed the idea, and the United States refused a League of Nations mandate to protect the stillborn state.

The 1924 Treaty of Lausanne, which delineated the present borders of Turkey, brought roughly half the Kurdish population under Turkish control. To Ataturk, anyone who lived in the new nation was a Turk, regardless of ethnic background. The Ankara government has kept his philosophy alive for more than 70 years.

The PKK began its armed struggle in southeast Turkey in 1984. Despite brutal army campaigns to suppress the revolt by depopulating villages sympathetic to the rebels - or perhaps because of them - the insurgency has spread to 24 of Turkey's 76 provinces.

It now costs the government nearly $7 billion a year, ties up 250,000 troops and has claimed more than 12,500 lives.

The guerrillas themselves are far from blameless, torturing and murdering villagers loyal to the state.

A unilateral PKK cease-fire declared in March 1993 lasted two months before rebels killed 35 unarmed Turkish soldiers in a bus ambush. Abdullah Ocalan, who leads the PKK from exile in Syria, offered another cease-fire in 1994, but Prime Minister Tansu Ciller vowed to "finish" the PKK militarily and foolishly alienated Kurdish moderates trying to work within the system.

Her government banned the professedly nonviolent Kurdish Democratic Party and lifted the immunity of its 13 members of parliament. It then put six of them on trial for subversion and, in December, sentenced them to prison terms of up to 15 years.

On March 20, Ciller committed 35,000 Turkish troops to a cross-border offensive against PKK bases in northern Iraq, prompting protests from Turkey's NATO allies and the German arms embargo. Another 20,000 troops went on the offensive against guerrilla concentrations in the eastern Turkish province of Tunceli.

Syria plays host to Kurdish rebels from both Turkey and Iraq but keeps a tight rein on its own potentially rebellious Kurds. Iran, too, offers sanctuary to Iraqi Kurds, but it hasn't always been kind to its own.

In Iraq, a murderous "relocation campaign" began in 1976 and reached a peak intensity in 1987-88, toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War. The Iraqi army demolished 4,700 villages accused of harboring rebels and killed more than 180,000 Kurds with conventional weapons and poison gas.

The full extent of the slaughter became known only after the Persian Gulf War, when Kurdish rebels took advantage of Saddam's defeat to seize large chunks of territory in Iraq's northern oil fields, including the cities of Kirkuk and Su-lei-man-iyah.

They found mass graves and 4 million documents, weighing 18 tons in all, confirming the use of gas and chemical weapons in the extermination program. The documents referred to the Kurds as "saboteurs" and authorized automatic death sentences for any found in "forbidden zones." One verified the death of 5,000 civilians in a single gas attack on the town of Halabja.

The grisly evidence of genocide sparked worldwide sympathy for the Kurds, but they were again betrayed.

Persuaded to rebel against Saddam by the Bush administration, the Kurds were led to believe that they would get U.S. help or at least protection from Iraqi reprisals. But Bush didn't intervene, and the 1991 rebellion was crushed within three weeks.

It wasn't until 1.5 million Kurdish refugees inundated Iran and Turkey that the United Nations sent troops and declared a "no-fly zone" in northern Iraq.

Now the Kurds are tearing themselves apart in a bitter power struggle between the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani, son of the guerrilla leader who once united his people, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Jalal Talabani.

Their war has sputtered on and off for four years. Eight cease-fires have crumbled. The latest outbreak of hostilities, centered around the oil city of Irbil, killed 1,500 people before a ninth truce was declared April 9.

The only one who can take satisfaction from all this bloodletting is Saddam. He knows that the Kurds' desire for self-determination is exceeded only by their talent for self-destruction.



Who's who among Kurdish factions

Here are brief profiles of the main Kurdish factions:

- Kurdish Workers' Party: Known by its initials PKK, this Trotskyite guerrilla group was formed with Soviet backing and launched its first terrorist attacks in southeast Turkey in 1984. It claims to have 12,000 fighters and is led by Abdullah Ocalan, based in Syria.

- Kurdistan Democratic Party: Led by Massoud Barzani, the KDP is built on tribal allegiances with a rural power base in the western part of northern Iraq. Allied with the Iranian-backed Kurdistan Islamic Movement.

- Patriotic Union of Kurdistan: More secular and left-leaning, the PUK was formed as a city-based alternative to the KDP by Jalal Talabani. It controls the eastern half of the U.N. administered "safe zone" in northern Iraq.

- Iraqi National Congress: An uneasy alliance between Kurdish Sunni Muslims, southern Shiites led by the Iran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and a ragtag coalition of nationalist cliques led by exiled opponents of Saddam lucky enough to have survived his wrath.