Turkish Soldiers Continue to Deploy at Iraqi Border
By Dorian Jones
19 November 2007
Turkey is still massing tens of thousands soldiers on the Iraqi border, a response to a series of attacks by Kurdish militants that have claimed the lives of more than 50 soldiers and civilians. Rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, many based in northern Iraq, have been fighting Turkey for autonomy for more than 20 years. But as Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul, the expected Turkish military incursion is not just about the PKK.
Turkish tanks continue to move toward the Iraqi border, joining an estimated 100,000 soldiers backed by helicopter gun ships and fighter jets.
This has been Turkey's largest military build up since 1997 when 200,000 soldiers were involved in an operation against PKK bases in Iraq.
But the effectiveness of such cross border operations remains in doubt. Despite numerous incursions into the mountainous border region over the past 20 years, former Turkish generals and analysts say the operations have had only limited success.
International relations expert Soli Ozel at Bilgi University in Istanbul says any military operation will have wider objectives than just fighting the PKK.
"PKK is only one aspect of it, the other aspect of it is the nature of the Kurdish entity in northern Iraq and the defiance of Barzani, and most importantly the issue of Kirkuk," Ozel said.
Masoud Barzani is president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq, where many PKK bases are located. Ankara has repeatedly accused Barzani of giving indirect if not direct support to the separatists, as part of an alleged strategy of using the PKK to further his goal of creating an independent Kurdish state, which Turkey opposes.
Barzani strongly denies the charges. But key to the creation of a Kurdish state would be control of the oil rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk, according to retired general Armagan Kuloglu, now head of a Turkish research institute.
"If Kirkuk is involved to this place, this state will gain an extra and huge economic power. And the aim of the Kurdish people, to create a greater Kurdistan," Kuloglu said. "And a greater Kurdistan territory covers some Turkish territory, some Iran territory and some Syrian territory."
According to Iraq's constitution, Kirkuk must hold a referendum by December to decide whether the city will join the semi autonomous Kurdistan region. Most analysts predict the vote will be in favor given the city's large Kurdish population. But Ankara has been lobbying for the referendum to be indefinitely postponed. Turkey wants special status for Kirkuk so that the city's ethnic Turkish population is protected.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a meeting earlier this month with President Bush, again pressed the issue.
Barzani claims the city as the Kurds' historical capital and earlier this year warned of serious consequences if Ankara interferes.
He said Turkey must not intervene in the Kirkuk issue, and if it does, the Kurds will interfere in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the mostly Kurdish area of southeastern Turkey.
Such threats, according to analysts, have fueled Turkish nationalism, with anti-PKK demonstrations like this one occurring almost daily. Analysts say the widespread anger at Iraqi Kurds is forcing the government into an uncompromising stance, despite calls for restraint from the U.S.
Soli Ozel says Iraqi Kurdish leaders must tone down their words and their actions, and Turkey should reciprocate.
"Still, their best chance is to have good relations with Turkey, which by the way Turkish constructors are building northern Iraq for them," Ozel said. "And that requires that Barzani take a more conciliatory position vis-a-vis Turkey. That would also necessitate a reciprocation on the part of Turkey, basically accepting that there is a either a federative (federal) state or independence."
With Turkish troops massed on the Iraqi border, talk of compromise and a diplomatic solution seems unrealistic for now. Observers say defusing regional tensions will involve not only dealing with the PKK, but resolving the far deeper question about the direction of Kurdish nationalism and, in particular, the fate of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
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