Friday, June 17, 2005

USATODAY.com - A murder stirs Kurds in Syria

USATODAY.com - A murder stirs Kurds in Syria:

"A murder stirs Kurds in Syria
By Nicholas Blanford, The Christian Science Monitor

QAMISHLI, Syria — At a meeting of Syrian political-intelligence officers in late April in the Kurdish northeast, the only item on the agenda was Sheikh Mohammed Mashouq al-Khaznawi.

He was becoming a problem for Syria, says a Western diplomat familiar with the meeting.

A moderate Islamic cleric who once worked with the Syrian government to temper extremism, Sheikh Khaznawi was emerging as one of its most outspoken critics. He advocated Kurdish rights and democracy, galvanizing many of the 1.7 million Kurds against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, Kurds were gaining political power in Iraq, Lebanon was casting Syrian troops out, and the U.S. was criticizing Syria's government.

'[Syrian intelligence] wrote a report saying he ... should be stopped. They said he would start a revolution,' says Sheikh Murad Khaznawi, the eldest of Sheikh Mohammed's eight sons.

On May 10, the cleric disappeared in Damascus. Three weeks later, he was found dead.

His murder sent shock waves through Syria's marginalized Kurdish community, sparking mass demonstrations earlier this month and mobilizing a community that represents the most potent domestic threat to President Assad.

'The sheikh was a symbol for the Kurdish people and he wanted all the people to unite and struggle peacefully,' says Hassan Saleh, secretary-general of Yakiti Party, a banned Kurdish group.

The Syrian authorities deny involvement in Khaznawi's killing. But analysts and diplomats note that the cleric's death coincides with a crackdown by Damascus against internal political dissent.

'The stability of Syria is in the hands of the Kurds,' says Ibrahim Hamidi, correspondent of the Arabic Al Hayat daily. 'They have a unique position. They are organized, they have an Islamic identity, regional support through the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, international support with some European countries lobbying for them, and political status because of [the Kurdish empowerment in] Iraq.'

Syria's 1.7 million Kurds comprise the largest non-Arab group in Syria, making up about 9% of the population. Most Kurds live in the Hasake province. The area's economic importance and the Baath Party's Arab nationalist ideology have ensured that the province has long been under firm state control.

In 1962, a year before the Baath Party took power, a census stripped around 120,000 Kurdish Syrians of their citizenship, reclassifying them as 'foreigners,' who carry red identity cards rather than passports. Today, some 300,000 Kurds live here.

In the early 1970s, thousands of Arabs were resettled on confiscated Kurdish property along a 200-mile strip on the Turkish border as part of an Arabization policy that included banning Kurds from schools."

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