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Iraq: Kurds Hold The Keys To Turkey's Dilemma

By Charles Recknagel

October 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Kurds, threatened with a military incursion by Turkey, find themselves in a pivotal -- and ironic -- position as Ankara and Washington search for ways to end attacks by Turkish Kurdish militants holed up in semi-autonomous northern Iraq.

In recent days, Turkey has deployed some 100,000 troops to the border areas of Kurdish-administered northern Iraq -- proof that Ankara is determined to force the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants out of its strongholds on the other side. At the same time, Turkey says it still wants a diplomatic solution to a crisis which has seen scores of Turkish troops killed in cross-border raids by PKK forces.

Ankara's diplomatic efforts focus on pressing Iraq's Kurdistan regional government (KRG) to take action against the PKK. But negotiations are not easy. To send Iraqi Kurdish fighters, the peshmerga, against the PKK -- possibly with the support of U.S. air power -- Iraqi Kurds will demand a high price from Ankara.

How high a price is the million-dollar question.

Ankara has never, and still does not, recognize the KRG and refuses to meet with its representatives in any official capacity. That reflects Ankara's fear that any international respect shown to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region would only embolden Turkey's own Kurdish minority to seek similar home-rule status.

As Ankara and Washington look for solutions from the Iraqi Kurdish leaders -- who are among the strongest supporters of the United States in Iraq -- those same leaders see the crisis as presenting them with some valuable bargaining power. The target for any bargain is Turkey. The price is what Ankara might give in exchange for Iraqi Kurds moving against the PKK.

U.S. Pressure On Iraqi Kurds

In its diplomatic push, Turkey has the support of Washington. The U.S. government -- which lists the PKK as a terrorist organization -- is also putting pressure on the Iraqi Kurds to push the PKK out. "The United States is determined to work with our allies in Iraq and to work with our allies in Turkey to try and deal with what is a very difficult situation of terrorism from a fairly remote part of northern Iraq," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on October 23. "And it requires information sharing, it requires a great deal of coordination."

But so far, the U.S. pressure on the Iraqi Kurds has not yielded much result. The State Department's senior Iraq adviser, David Satterfield, suggested on October 23 that Washington wants to see Iraq's Kurdish leaders do more. "We are not pleased with the lack of action," he told reporters in the U.S. capital, without specifying what kind of action he meant.

In public, Turkey is bargaining solely through the Baghdad government. That was on display this week as the Turkish foreign minister, Ali Babacan, visited Baghdad. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he assured Babacan that Iraq "will not allow any party or any group, including the PKK, to poison our bilateral relations. And also I reassured [Babacan] that the Iraqi government will actively help Turkey to overcome this menace."

But the fact that Zebari is also a top official of one of the dominant Iraqi Kurdish parties may belie the appearance that this is entirely a state-to-state affair. Zebari is from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), whose support base is the region that abuts the Turkish border. Both the KDP, and its partner in the KRG, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have strong militias that are nominally part of Iraq's army but ultimately answer to the Kurdish parties.

Sami Shoresh, a former KRG minister, says the Iraqi Kurds are ready to discuss with Ankara alternative solutions to a Turkish invasion. But only if Ankara meets certain conditions. "The Kurds of Iraq have said that if the Turkish government announces a peaceful solution for the situation of the PKK inside Iraqi Kurdistan, and if the PKK refuses this political solution, then at that time the Kurds would be ready to think with the Americans, with the Iraqi government, with the Turkish government, about another kind of solution," he says.

This position recognizes that the PKK have had bases in Iraq since the 1980s and -- even though both the KDP and PUK have periodically fought with the PKK in shifting alliances since then -- there is some popular sympathy in northern Iraq for Turkish Kurd separatists.

But would Turkey offering a political solution to the PKK really be enough? Some independent observers with close ties to the KRG say privately that the price the Iraqi Kurds want is much higher. They say it could include Ankara formally recognizing the Kurdish-administered north of Iraq as part of the federal state of Iraq.

The observers say the recognition demands would at a minimum include accepting the KRG's representatives as officials. They might also include withdrawing Turkish opposition to including oil-rich Kirkuk as part of the Kurdish self-rule region. The future status and ethnic make-up of Kirkuk is hotly contested between Iraqi Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans -- a Turkic-speaking minority community whose claims are backed by Ankara.

Limited Turkish Leverage

As Turkey pursues diplomacy on the Iraqi side of the border, but threatens invasion by massing its forces on the Turkish side, does it have any other ways to step up pressure on the Iraqi Kurds to act? In the past, one such lever might have been economic action. Despite Turkey's nonrecognition of the Iraqi Kurdish area, cross-border trade is high and some 800 Turkish companies are working in the Kurdish-administered area.

Indeed, some of the area's largest construction projects -- funded in part by taxes on oil exports to Turkey -- have been completed by Turkish firms. They include the region's two airports, in Irbil and Al-Sulaymaniyah.

But former minister Shoresh says that the time when Turkey could simply isolate northern Iraq economically by closing the border is now long gone. "Until now, there is nothing in the way of economic pressure from Turkey and maybe this has a link with another matter, which is the fact the Kurds now have many airports and they have good links with the whole world and even if Turkey closes the [border] gate, yes, there will be bad effects on the Kurdish economy but not as bad as those worst effects which we experienced 10 years ago," he says.

If so, Turkey's options now are just two. Send its army -- which is NATO's second largest -- into Iraq despite Washington's opposition. Or negotiate the price for Iraqi-Kurd assistance.

Where the bargaining leads -- and whether it might yet end in Turkish military action -- is hard to predict. But over the coming days, and possibly weeks, intense behind-the-scenes negotiations appear to be more likely than a cross-border operation by the Turkish military.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org



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