DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — "Happy is he who is a Turk," the nationalist slogan etched across bleak hillsides and grim police stations in this largely Kurdish province, is being replaced by a more inclusive motto: "This country belongs to us all."
Buoyed by military successes against Kurdish separatists and the capture last year of their elusive leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the Turkish government has launched a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the country's alienated Kurdish minority. Security officials who once scowled and pointed their guns are now more likely to smile politely when asking civilians to show their identity cards. Kurdish villagers, uprooted by 15 years of fighting that has claimed more than 30,000 lives, are being allowed to return home.
A mood of hope is palpable in Diyarbakir, would-be capital of the would-be Kurdish state that Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party has long fought to carve out of southeastern Turkey.
At an art gallery in the city's ancient gray fortress, 21-year-old university student Sefik Ozcan greets visitors in front of his work, which shows fluttering white doves set against a deep blue background. It is titled "Peace."
Outside, Hasan Caglar, a farmer in traditional baggy trousers held up by a checkered cummerbund, negotiated a cart full of squawking chickens through heavy traffic. "I am 67 years old, and it's the first time I am being treated like a human being," he said. "Tell me, will it last?"
The answer depends on how Turkish leaders manage what many agree is their best opportunity to settle the long-running conflict. A peaceful outcome could advance Turkey's dream of joining the European Union and serve as a model for Kurdish minorities' relations with regimes in Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Turkey's 12 million Kurds make up about one-fifth of the population. The Kurdish rebellion is the biggest challenge yet to the Turkish republic's longtime ideology that demands assimilation by the country's ethnic minorities.
Since Kemal Ataturk founded the republic in 1923, Kurds have been fighting on and off for an independent Kurdistan in a mountainous region that extends from Turkey into parts of the same three neighboring Mideast states. An additional estimated 11 million Kurds live in those countries.
The government's hearts-and-minds campaign has gathered pace in recent weeks, after European Union leaders on Dec. 10 invited Turkey to start lengthy negotiations to join the bloc. Days after that decision, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem called for easing restrictions on broadcasting in the Kurdish language.
Mesut Yilmaz, a former prime minister who shares power in Turkey's ruling coalition as head of the Motherland Party, has urged an end to repressive "emergency rule" in five Kurdish provinces. Mothers of slain Kurdish guerrillas showered Yilmaz with white carnations as he told 2,000 Kurds at the City Hall here: "Turks and Kurds . . . we deserve more freedom."
A once-vengeful Turkish public has reacted calmly to recent statements by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit that Turkey cannot hang Ocalan if it wants to join the EU, which opposes capital punishment. Turkey put the execution, originally scheduled for June, on hold Wednesday to allow the European Court of Human Rights to review Ocalan's appeal.
The nascent climate of peace here owes as much to the Kurdish leader's overtures from prison as it does to Turkey's military strength and EU aspirations. Since a court issued his death sentence last June, Ocalan has ordered his guerrillas to end their armed struggle and withdraw from Turkey to Iran and Iraq.
Renouncing autonomy or independence as an "unrealistic" goal, Ocalan declared that recognition of expanded cultural rights, including public education in the Kurdish language, would be enough to satisfy his people.
Ocalan persuaded 16 prominent followers based in Europe and Iraq to surrender to Turkish authorities during autumn, hoping to elicit concessions from the government.
All 16 were arrested. The Turkish armed forces' high command has said it will not negotiate with "terrorists" and will keep battling Ocalan's fighters until "every last one is neutralized."
Yet the commander in chief, Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu, said fighting in the Kurdish region has declined "by 90%" since the guerrillas began withdrawing. About 500 rebels remain in Turkey, he said, down from 10,000 in the early 1990s.
"There has been a marked decline in terrorist activity," Cemil Serhatli, Diyarbakir province's new governor, said in an interview. "Still, we cannot say it has ended for good until they all turn themselves in with their weapons."
Seated behind a large sign that reads, "Don't be afraid to speak the truth," the governor is part of a new corps of liberal-minded Turkish bureaucrats being deployed in the war-racked Kurdish region.