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DIYARBAKIR, Turkey - "Things are a lot better now. The cassette might be confiscated, but at least I won't be arrested." Hadi, a young Kurd and a native of Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey, the region in which the majority of the country's Kurdish population lives, is explaining the ways in which Ankara is now "easing" the situation for the Kurds of Turkey: They are permitted to listen to Kurdish music, though only love songs. Political songs or poetry, writing and printing literature, the distribution of Kurdish-language television programs - all are forbidden. Turkey does not recognize minority groups, and any act or statement that is liable to put a dent in those regulations constitutes a criminal offense punishable by a lengthy prison term, based on the article of the law that prohibits the undermining of the unity of the homeland.

This approach goes a long way toward explaining Turkey's fear at the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq - on Turkey's southern border. The Turkish position is that such a state is liable to foment powerful national sentiments among the Kurds who are Turkish citizens, and the possibility cannot be ruled out that the new country will try to annex southeastern Turkey.

Partial Kurdish autonomy already exists in northern Iraq: The moment one crosses the border from Turkey into northern Iraq one hears the term "Kurdistan." However, the Kurdish leadership itself has yet to decide if it is interested in a state as such or will make do with autonomy. The debate heats up anew whenever the question of the anticipated American attack on Iraq comes up. "The question is first of all an economic one," says a Kurdish businessman next to the border with Iraq. "Our economic situation at this time is excellent. The oil tankers that move to and from Turkey provide us with a handsome tithe, and the Kurdish towns are flourishing. An attack on Iraq and the division of the country could have an adverse effect on the Kurds' economic ability to sustain a state. I am not sure our leadership will know how to manage a country even if the economic situation turns out to be good." But that's another story.

On the day the Kurdish businessman offered that appraisal, the United States deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, was holding talks with what remained of the political leadership in Turkey on the possibility of an American attack on Iraq. Turkey, which suffered an economic setback amounting to tens of billions of dollars in the Gulf War more than a decade ago, is ready to consider its support for an assault on the regime of Saddam Hussein, but only on condition that Iraq is not divided and that no independent Kurdish state is established.

This places the United States, the exporter of democracy, on the horns of a dilemma. The realization of people's aspiration to independence is an inseparable element of the American vision. Every section of a people that detached itself from the Soviet Union immediately got a pat on the back from Washington along with assistance and guidance on the establishment of a state. After all, democracy cannot exist or be sustained under occupation, be it of the military or the cultural variety. That same vision has also given birth to the American policy in support of the creation of a Palestinian state. In the eyes of the administration, there is nothing more legitimate than the Palestinians' demand for independence and there is nothing more complicated and obstacle-strewn than the Kurds' aspiration to independence.

In its effort to liberate the Iraqi people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. administration needs the assistance of Turkey. To get that help, Washington will have to forgo the idea of independence for the Kurds. In any event, the Kurds are already used to being disappointed by the Americans. No American president has yet gone out of his way - not even during the Gulf War - to show concern for the Kurds' cultural and political well-being. The Kurds who fled from Iraq received the usual shipment of tents and food, almost like the Afghans more recently. At the moment, the Kurds cannot even dream of getting anything that resembles what the Afghans received. But how can the United States hold aloft the banner of global democracy and preach the right of peoples to self-determination when the Kurdish cause is liable once more to become political merchandise that bears a price tag in Turkish pounds? Lofty principles, it turns out, are no different from any other form of merchandise; it all depends who's selling and who's buying.