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October 27, 2007

Turkish Incursion Into Iraq a Minefield Larger Than It Looks


by Jacques N. Couvas

ANKARA - Tension between Turkey, Iraq and the United States went up another degree as Turkish artillery continued Wednesday and Thursday to shell civilian targets and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) positions across its border, while army helicopters launched several raids along the border separating Turkey from northern Iraq.

The attacks, reported by state-controlled Anadolu and private Dogan Turkish news agencies, and confirmed by western wires, seem to be the prelude to an incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, a probable course of action by Ankara following the approval the government received last week from the Turkish parliament.

Turkey's intent is to disrupt PKK's activities against Turkish military bases and patrols in the region, which, according to Ankara, are organized with the support of Iraqi Kurds, and the tolerance of Baghdad. The guerrilla conflict has so far cost 30,000 lives in both camps.

It is estimated that 3,000 Turkish Kurds are engaged in PKK operations in the zone. PKK, formed in 1984, was initially a movement aiming to form an independent state, but has in recent years limited its claims to becoming an autonomous region of Turkey.

Although PKK combatants consider themselves freedom fighters, they are listed as terrorists by Turkey, the European Union and the US

Escalation in hostilities has increased since the beginning of the year, causing dozens of deaths weekly, particularly amongst Turkish soldiers. The high command of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has since the spring been putting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan under pressure to authorize punitive actions on Iraqi soil in order to dismantle the PKK.

In spite of the parliament's decision last week by 507 votes to 19 to let TSK have its way, Erdogan is still reluctant to press the button. His preference all along has been for a peaceful, negotiated solution involving the rebels, Washington and Baghdad. But his hands are tied, and he may have to give in soon under bellicose public and press opinion, and bitter feelings of officers.

The PM's strategy has so far been to loudly ask the Iraqi government to police the PKK, and for the US to ensure that such policing take place. This is, of course, a maneuver to appease his citizens, who, although they supported him during the July legislative elections, nourish unconditional solidarity with their army.

Meanwhile, a semi-promise to invade can give secularist TSK a sweet pill after the appointment of Abdullah Gul as President of the republic, against fierce opposition by the General Staff of the army. Gul and Erdogan are leaders of the Islamist-origin Justice and Development (AK) Party.

Erdogan knows that Baghdad can, or is willing to, do very little. Northern Iraq has since the end of the first Gulf war been outside its military jurisdiction, as law enforcement and defense have become the prerogative of the local Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga. The latter's affinities are closer to their autonomy-seeking brothers from Turkey than to Iraq's central government, and their loyalty lies with Massoud Barzani, president of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.

Moreover, the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, is also a Kurd, born in Kelkan and educated in Arbil and Kirkuk, which are located in the area targeted by TSK. Talabani has since 1961 led various Kurdish separatist movements against Baghdad. In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, he sided with the Iranians in order to further his people's cause.

Although he has kept friendly relations with Turkey, having been protected by former Turkish president Turgut Ozal when he was persecuted by Saddam Hussein, it is unlikely that he will turn a blind eye to a Turkish invasion of his homeland.

At a press conference called on the weekend to calm down the Turkish government after a PKK ambush that killed 12 TSK soldiers, Talabani threatened to close down their bases and offices, but categorically refused to hand over any PKK member to the Turks.

Barzani, who addressed the press conference along with Talabani, warned that the regional administration will defend itself against any attack by its neighbor.

"We are not going to be caught up in the war between PKK and Turkey, but if (Iraqi) Kurdistan is targeted, then we are going to defend our citizens," Barzani said. He had earlier secured a motion of 183 to 92 by the Iraqi national assembly condemning Turkey's threat to cross over to northern Iraq.

What should be read between the lines, however, is that an invasion of Iraq could prompt armed participation in the combat by other Iraqi guerrilla factions, something that neither the Kurds, nor Baghdad, Ankara or Washington would like. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be particularly careful not to provoke the Kurds, as his government's survival relies on their political support.

The hopes of Ankara for a solution that excludes an incursion have, as a result, now been narrowed down to the White House's willingness, or ability, to exert influence on the Iraqi leadership.

The White House is stuck in a series of dilemmas in its own right. The Iraqi Kurds have been strong allies in the two wars staged against Saddam's regime, and were given encouragement and promises of autonomy, and possibly independence. They cannot be left in the cold if their territory is invaded.

But the US also needs its Turkish ally, albeit not as much as it did during the Cold War. Turkey is right now useful because of a large base the US Army has at Incirlik in south-eastern Turkey, which is vital for the logistics enabling the occupation of Iraq, and which would be suitable for its evacuation.

This base has been leveraged by Erdogan to gain support from US President Geroge W. Bush to counter the initiative by the US House of Representatives, which resulted this month in a non-binding resolution acknowledging the massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians in 1915-1916 by the Ottoman Turks as genocide. Bush's administration is therefore in a weaker negotiating position with Ankara than it would have liked.

With the new, tougher sanctions by the US against Teheran announced Thursday, and chilly relations with Damascus, Bush is likely to avoid frustrating Turkey in a war against the PKK, while preserving the loyalty of Kurds, not only in Iraq but also in Iran and Syria.

There are no verified figures about Kurdish populations, but international agencies, researchers and the US Central Intelligence Agency estimate that there could be as many as 37 million ethnic Kurds worldwide.

Of these, approximately 12 to 19 million live in Turkey, spread in 17 of the country's 81 provinces, five to six million in Iraq, about as many in Iran, and two to three million in Syria. The total contiguous territorial surface inhabited by Kurds would be about 500,000 square kilometers, more than double the size of the United Kingdom.

Any impulsive action by Turkey could set the clock for another time bomb in the entire region.

(Inter Press Service)

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Jacques N. Couvas writes for Inter Press Service.

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