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A murder stirs Kurds in Syria

Syria's 1.7 million Kurds are impatient over their rights, and key to Syrian stability.

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.

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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 US 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."

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Syria's 1.7 million Kurds comprise the largest non-Arab group in Syria, making up about 9 percent 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 that number has grown to 300,000. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that 300,000 Kurds live in Hasake province.]

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 the teaching of Kurdish from schools. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated that Kurds were banned from schools.]

Preaching individual rights

It was in this milieu that Sheikh Khaznawi was raised. He was born into a respected religious family that followed the Sufi branch of Islam, a movement of organized brotherhoods, known as Tariqas, each one headed by a sheikh. But the young Khaznawi broke with Sufi tradition and began preaching individual freedom and self-responsibility rather than collective obedience to a single leader.

"The sheikh used to speak against the majority of Sufi ways. He said it was like drugging the mind," says his son Murad.

A father of 16 children, he cut a distinguished figure in his traditional garb of gray tunic and tightly wrapped white turban. He possessed a good sense of humor and, unlike most Islamic clerics, was happy to shake hands with women. Khaznawi's moderate ideas, which included support for secularism and tolerance of other faiths, won him a growing number of followers and endeared him initially to the Syrian government, which views Islamic extremism with hostility.

In March 2004, simmering tensions in the Kurdish northeast exploded into bloody clashes between Kurds, Syrian security forces, and Arab tribesmen. The government asked Khaznawi to travel to Qamishli to help ease tensions. His mediation helped calm the situation, but he grew increasingly active in advocating Kurdish rights. When 312 Kurdish detainees were released in March, Khaznawi was there to greet them. In April, on the anniversary of the death of a Kurd in last year's riots, he publicly denounced the government's treatment of Kurds.

"After that he was warned by the security [agents] that what he was doing was dangerous," says Mr. Saleh. Then, Khaznawi traveled to Brussels in February and met with the exiled head of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization which fought a terrorist campaign against the government in the early 1980s. The meeting earned him another warning from state security.

In April, he gave an interview with the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper in which he was quoted as saying, "Either the regime will change or the regime must go.... The reason I can speak out is because the Americans are trying get rid of dictators and help the oppressed."

Khaznawi began receiving death threats from Islamic extremists who abhorred his moderation and his criticism of suicide bombings in Iraq. Also threatened was his colleague Mohammed Habash, director of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus, an institution that advocates moderate Islam.

"They warned me and Khaznawi that we were playing with fire," says Mr. Habash. "I'm afraid. I think there's a clear plan of the fundamentalists to fight the renewal [moderation] of Islam."

Early last month, Khaznawi received a call from people claiming to be followers of his father, who died in 1992. They told the cleric that their father was ill and wanted to see him. Could he come to their house for breakfast? He was suspicious, but he accepted. He left the Islamic Studies Center on the morning of May 10 and was not seen again. "He said he would go to breakfast, but unfortunately he went to his death instead," Habash says.

Kurds rising

Khaznawi's disappearance spurred some 10,000 Kurds to demonstrate in Qamishli on May 21, calling on the government to reveal his whereabouts. But the government denied any knowledge of the kidnapping.

On June 1, Khaznawi's family was informed that their father had been found dead in Deir ez-Zor. His body, which was buried in a cemetery on the edge of town, showed signs of torture. "The security told us he had been buried for 12 days," says Sheikh Morshed Khaznawi, another of Khaznawi's sons. "We didn't believe them because the depth of the grave was only 70 centimeters [two feet] and Deir ez-Zor is very hot. He should have decayed very badly."

The Syrian authorities blamed the cleric's murder on a "criminal gang." Two gang members were arrested and were shown confessing on television.

Tens of thousands of mourners attended Khaznawi's burial and some 10,000 (mostly Kurd) protesters took to the streets of Qamishli on June 5. The demonstration turned violent when police and Arab tribesmen beat the protesters, including women, then looted dozens of Kurdish-owned shops.

"We have exceeded the culture of fear that the regime planted in us," says Machal Tammo, of the Tayyar Mustaqbal, a Kurdish Party. "For this very reason, the regime does not want us to ask for our demands peacefully."

More rights for Kurds?

The main road between Hasake and Qamishli cuts across a barren terrain of harvested wheat fields, the monotony of the featureless plain occasionally broken by small man-made hills, known as tells, which have been part of this ancient steppe for more than 4,000 years. The hot wind creates spinning columns of dust which pirouette and sway gracefully across the fields of golden stubble.

At the entrance to Qamishli today, plainclothes Syrian intelligence officers with rifles keep an eye on passing traffic. More intelligence officers sit on stools beside their vehicle at a roundabout. Security has grown tighter since Khaznawi's kidnapping and murder.

Morshed Khaznawi, who bears a striking resemblance to his slain father, demands an international investigation into his father's death. "We think the Syrian authorities have complete and total responsibility," he says.

But Mr. Habash and some analysts doubt that the regime was behind Khaznawi's death, pointing to a long-running family dispute and the enmity he aroused among Islamic extremists.

"I believe the children of Mashouq are in the eye of the storm and have a desire to accuse the government," Habash says. "Mashouq had good contacts with the regime, government, army, and intelligence. His political activities were not enough to get him killed."

Following the March 2004 riots in Qamishli, Abdullah Derdary, the Syrian planning minister, traveled to Hasake province and reassured the Kurds that economic assistance was on its way.

"Nothing happened and this time no one believes them," says a Western diplomat familiar with Kurdish affairs. "They are looking at Iraq and thinking we can organize ourselves and the regime knows it."

During the 1990s, Syrian Kurds were permitted to fulfill their military service with the PKK, the Kurdish armed separatist group that was fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey. Damascus and Ankara signed a security pact in 1998 which ended Syria's support for the PKK. But, according to the diplomat, many Syrian Kurds have slipped into northern Iraq to continue fighting with a newly resurgent PKK, which could have alarming implications for Damascus.

Still, there are indications that the government is taking the Kurdish dilemma more seriously. The government recently appointed Major General Mohammed Mansoura as head of Syria's powerful political security department. General Mansoura has extensive experience with the Kurds having headed the Hasake branch of military intelligence from 1982 to 2002.

Regardless of who killed Khaznawi, the death of the respected cleric has refocused attention on Syria's Kurds. Last week's Baath Party Congress referred to unspecified steps to help the Kurds - widely reported to involve granting citizenship to the 300,000 stateless Kurds.

But for many Kurds such government measures are too little too late. "The Kurds are really fed up. They don't care anymore," says Maan Abdelsalam, a Syrian civil rights activist.

The Kurds' Status in Syria

• Population: 1.7 million. As Syria's largest non-Arab group, Kurds account for approximately 9 percent of the country's total population.

• Stateless Kurds: In 1962, more than 120,000 Kurds were stripped of their Syrian citizenship. Today the number of Kurds without Syrian passports has swelled to more than 300,000.

• Hasake Province, where most Kurds live, is the main source of Syria's oil and gas reserves and a major center of cotton and wheat production.


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