BELL TEXTRON, the Rhode Island-based company that makes helicopter
gunships, got some good news a few months ago when Turkey awarded
it a $4 billion contract for 146 attack helicopters, one of the largest
single arms deals in history.
International competition for the contract had been intense, with
five companies, including Boeing Aircraft and Bell Textron, submitting
bids. When Turkey eliminated Boeing's Apache helicopter from consideration
last year, Bell's King Cobra became the favorite to win the award.
Soon after it convenes, the new Congress will have to decide whether
to grant an export license for the weapons.
About 80 percent of the Turkish arsenal is US-made, and the Turkish
Army has relied on Sikorsky Blackhawks and Apache and Cobra helicopters
to win the long (and underreported) war with Kurdish rebels in the
In 1997, the Clinton administration granted Boeing and Bell market
licenses to build the attack helicopters, brushing aside human rights
objections from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch about
Turkey's abuse of its ethnic population.
Since President Clinton took office in 1992, more than $6 billion
in US weaponry has been delivered to Turkey. Now that Bell has won
the helicopter contract, the Bush administration may try to persuade
Congress to override human rights concerns, thus brokering the sale.
American-made helicopters are well known to the Kurds. I have often
encountered refugees from destroyed villages in southeast Turkey
whose only English were the words Sikorsky and Cobra. Villagers
know that the soldiers who burn their houses arrive in Blackhawk
helicopters, which are made by the Connecticut-based Sikorsky company.
And they easily recognize the rocket-equipped Cobras, which are
manufactured at a Bell Textron plant in Texas.
Turkish Kurdistan is a rugged, mountainous region, and helicopters
have proved essential in the army's scorched-earth campaign. So
far, more than 3,000 Kurdish villages have been burned, depriving
the guerrillas of logistical support. Estimates of civilian Kurds
displaced by the war range from 500,000 to 2 million. It has been
a dirty war, and both sides have been guilty of atrocities.
The Kurds are a large, diverse group whose members spill across
the borders of Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria, and parts of the former
Soviet Union. With a population of 25 million to 30 million, they
represent the largest ethnic minority in the world without their
The first Kurds I met were in Iraq, where I was shooting television
news at the end of the Gulf War. At that time, the networks had
an appetite for stories of Saddam Hussein's abuses (the Iraqi dictator
had destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages), and I had lots of
work. But when I started covering the Kurdish uprising in Turkey,
I couldn't give the stories away. I was told that as far as the
media were concerned, the Turkish-Kurdish war wasn't on the radar.
Today, Ankara continues to dispatch US- made F-16s and Cobra attack
helicopters to bomb Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, where most
of rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan's fighters have withdrawn. Last
weekend, according to Turkish newspapers, 10,000 Turkish troops
crossed 100 miles into Iraq, the deepest cross-border penetration
to date. At last report, the US-equipped troops were trying to encircle
2,500 Kurdish fighters dug in along the Iraq-Iran border.
Twelve months ago, the European Union voted to consider Turkey
for admission to the EU, but only on the condition that it clean
up its human rights record. But the EU may be having second thoughts.
Soon after the vote, Turkey blocked an EU delegation from visiting
Leyla Zana, the imprisoned Kurdish member of the Turkish Parliament
who has received the EU's peace prize. Then a Kurdish educational
foundation was indicted on criminal charges of inciting separatist
propaganda because it advertised a scholarship for students who
could read and write in Kurdish.
Last year the government ordered a CNN television affiliate off
the air for 24 hours because a reporter asked a guest if history
might one day regard Ocalan as a Turkish version of the South African
revolutionary Nelson Mandela. A few days later, Turkey arrested
the Kurdish mayors of three cities on vague charges of separatism.
There are 37 elected Kurdish mayors, and many observers had hoped
that their leadership would provide a nonviolent alternative to
the civil war in Turkey that since 1984 has taken 40,000 lives,
most of them Kurds.
Turkey has hired a stable of former leading members of Congress
to pave the way for licensing the King Cobras. The lobbyists include
former House Rules Committee chairman Gerald Solomon of New York
and former congressman Stephen Solarz, also of New York. Best known
is former House speaker-designate Bob Livingston of Louisiana, who
has received a $1.8 million contract to lobby for Turkey.
While Turkey is a valuable ally, what US exports need is gun control,
but that demands leadership from Washington. The sale of 146 attack
helicopters may be good news to Bell Textron, but human rights are
also in America's national interest. The new White House should
use its influence to hold up the $4 billion in gunships until Ankara
shows a willingness to deal democratically with its own citizens.
Kevin McKiernan is a producer and director whose latest documentary
is ''Good Kurds, Bad Kurds.''
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company