Greek MP Sgouridis Sees Kurds as Strong Players in the Puzzle of Middle East Peace

Article excerpt

FOR THE PAST 15 years or so, most American news organizations have reported on those Kurds living in the contiguous areas of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Following the 1991 defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf war, and at the urging of U.S. President George H.W. Bush, Iraq's Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussain. When Washington failed to back them and Iraq's southern Shi'i population, Saddam retaliated with massive military force as the U.S. stood by, and an estimated half of the three and a half million Iraqi Kurds fled their homes.

Less than a decade later, on Feb. 15, 1999, Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, was captured in Kenya as he was being driven from the Greek ambassador's residence to the Nairobi airport. In demonstrations throughout the world, Kurds expressed their support for Ocalan, who, after being tried and sentenced to death in Turkey, called on his PKK guerrillas to end their armed struggle for independence.

In the intervening years, Iraqi Kurds re-established themselves and enjoy virtual autonomy in northern Iraq-thanks in no small part to U.S. and British planes patrolling a "no-fly zone" they unilaterally established there and in southern Iraq-and fighting in southeastern Turkey has abated. As part of its effort to join the European Union (EU), Turkey abolished the death penalty, and Ocalan now faces life in prison.

Today Iraqi Kurds are the strongest ally of U.S. occupation forces, and the country's president, Jalal Talabani, is a Kurd. Across the border in Turkey, however, Ankara watches with concern, fearing Iraqi Kurds may join up with their Turkish brothers to further their dream of an independent Kurdistan. It remains to be seen whether Washington will succeed in this delicate balancing act between its needs for allies in Iraq and its traditional alliance with Ankara.

Because the implications of success or failure are enormously significant to neighboring countries as well, it is no surprise that the regional players are many. One of whom few Americans may have heard is Panagiotis Sgouridis, former deputy speaker of the Greek parliament. The representative of Xanthi in the northeast district of Greek Thrace, Sgouridis recently visited the U.S. to represent his country in Baltimore's Greek Independence Day Mid-Atlantic Parade, held March 25.

As a member of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), founded in 1974 following the fall of the Greek junta, Sgouridis was first elected to parliament in 1989. He is his country's longest-serving deputy speaker, having held that position for 11 years, from 1993 to 2004, when PASOK, headed by George Papandreou, lost the general election to the New Democracy Party of current Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis.

Sgouridis, whose father was born in Istanbul, attributes his lifelong commitment to minority rights to the fact that Thrace-homeland of Dionysius, the Greek god of wine-today is home not only to Orthodox Christian Greeks, but also to such diverse groups as Muslim Greeks (including Turkish Muslims who decided to remain in Greece after the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 ending World War I, and Pomaki Greeks, who converted to Islam during the Ottoman Empire); Pontian Greeks, originally from the shores of the Black Sea; Gypsies; and a few Armenians. Recent immigrants to his district include Eastern Europeans, Kurds, Pakistanis, Iraqis and Afghanis.

In his writings and speeches Sgouridis has expressed a special sympathy for oppressed people, including Kurds and Palestinians. Many Turkish Kurds, the Greek parliamentarian noted, see Greece as a doorway to the EU, whether traveling to Europe via land, through Thrace, or sea.

As the deputy speaker of parliament, Sgouridis met twice with PKK leader Ocalan: in Damascus, Syria in July 1995-the result of a five-member parliamentary delegation Sgouridis led to The Hague in June 1995 to meet with the exiled Kurdish parliament at its invitation-and in Italy in December of 1998, just months before Ocalan's capture. …