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US's Kurdish ban risks backfiring
By Mark Berniker

In news that must have been music to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ears, L Paul Bremer, the US proconsul in Iraq, on Wednesday announced that the United States-led coalition regards the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, as a terrorist organization.

Bremer's announcement in Baghdad came several hours before a meeting in Washington between US President George W Bush and Erdogan. The PKK is accused of using northern Iraq as a base for staging attacks on neighboring Turkey, which has been engaged in a decades-long struggle with Kurdish rebels and which has itself banned the PKK.

No one should underestimate the depth of enmity between the Kurds and Turks, or how both groups could complicate an already shaky security situation in Iraq, and Kurdish moves for an autonomous Kurdish enclave in the new northern Iraq are making Ankara very edgy.

Erdogan is also trying to patch up US-Turkish relations, which took a body blow when the Turkish parliament denied US-led coalition forces access to Iraq through Turkey last year, and when Turkey reversed its decision to send troops to Iraq to help with peacekeeping.

While Bremer and Shi'ite leader Ayatollah al-Sistani have voiced different ideas about how, when and in what format elections will proceed in Iraq by July 2004, the Turks and Kurds have strong views concerning whether the new Iraq should be split along federal, geographic, or perhaps ethnic lines.

Ahead of his meetings with Bush, Erdogan addressed the Council for Foreign Relations in New York, saying: "There is a demand to establish a federation in the north of Iraq. We approve of neither an ethnic, nor religious-based federation. These developments will cause a difficult situation for Iraq in the future."

But the Kurds of northern Iraq, with strong ties to more than 13 million Kurds in Turkey, and perhaps another 20 million Kurds in Iran, Syria and elsewhere around the world, want to see an Iraq with a federal government structure. The Kurds see their northern region as becoming semi-autonomous, with access to the lucrative oil fields of Kirkuk and Khanakin, an area that the US doesn't consider Kurdish territory. The Kurds were an integral ally in the US-led invasion of Iraq, and not only came to the coalition's rescue in the north of Iraq, but also gave forces a transit way to Baghdad, something Turkey was not willing to do. No US or coalition forces have been killed in northern Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq.

While the Kurds have sizeable nationalist aspirations, there are indications that the US is actively trying to reel them in, as they try to juggle a range of competing views coming out of the Sunni and Shi'ite communities in the many other regions of Iraq. Bremer met with Kurdish leaders in early January, and apparently emphasized that their hopes for a secular Kurdish state in the north go too far, and also don't sit well with the other 80 percent of Iraq made up of non-Kurds.

But the Kurds have never been big on compromise. There is no question that Turkey, Syria and Iran don't want to see what amounts to an autonomous Kurdish state in the north of Iraq, further hardening the Kurdish position. However, to ignore the Kurd's chance for some stability and autonomy would be a mistake, as well.

On January 27, Kurdish frustrations surfaced when officials in the Irbil province of Iraq threatened to close the offices of the Peace Monitoring Force (PMF), which is commanded by Turkish officers and a force of close to 400 mainly Iraqi Turkmen and Iraqi Assyrians. The PMF was put in place to patrol a line separating the two rival Kurdish groups: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Neschirwan Barzani, prime minister of the portion of northern Iraq controlled by his KDP forces, told the Associated Press that the PMF is no longer needed now that Saddam Hussein has been ousted and captured. The report quotes US Lieutenant-Colonel James Bullion of the US Army's Civil Affairs Battalion in Irbil as saying that it was "unlikely" that the Kurds would use force to expel Turkish troops in Irbil. But the tension remains.

While Barzani is talking tough, Erdogan is in Washington, and all indications point to Ankara angling for a closer relationship with the US, emerging as the foreign policy broker between the US and Europe on one hand, and the Middle East and Central Asia, on the other.

During his meeting with Erdogan, when concerns about Iraq were brought to the agenda, Bush reportedly confirmed that speculation about Iraq's territorial integrity will not be allowed. "We are aware of your [Turkey's] anxieties. You could be sure. I am an honest man; trust my word."

In a joint press briefing held after the meetings, Bush acknowledged that Turkey is an important friend and ally of the US. "We talked about a US Iraq ideal in territorial integrity and peace. [Erdogan] informed me about the Cyprus issue. I am very pleased by the effort to resolve the dispute. This is a matter that has continued for such a long time."

Erdogan's Turkey has signaled that it is willing to be a mediator between Syria and Israel, and is moving forward with resolving the longstanding row with Greece over Cyprus, so that it can position itself for possible talks on a vote to join the European Union in December.

On January 28, US Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking to a group of European newspaper columnists, reiterated US support for Turkey's bid to enter the EU, which is a far more popular proposition in Turkey than in much of Europe.

Turkey is trying to turn around from a low point for US-Turkish relations last year, when the Turkish parliament voted to not allow Turkish territory to be used as a staging ground for its invasion of Iraq. But now it appears the Turkish government will be extending some of its bases to be used for troop rotation and the gradual removal of much of the US force in Iraq through Turkey back to Europe and the US. Turkey is keen to be a broker, assisting in US troop departure from the region, something that many neighbors, and much of Islamic world, feel can't happen soon enough.

So, once again it looks like the Kurds are going to get the short end of the stick, and be told they will be given a degree of autonomy, but will not be allowed to control oil resources, pipeline taxes, or to maintain their own Peshmerga para-militia. It's hard to imagine that one, especially given the history. Surely, if the Turks have their way, the Kurdish aspirations will be muted, which could be a radicalizing influence on the more-rebellious Kurdish factions.

On January 28, Agence-France Press reported that close to 250 Arab tribal chiefs said they are strongly against Kurdish demands for the oil center of Kirkuk to be part of a still-to-be-determined Kurdish autonomous region in the north of Iraq. Kurdish leaders want to see the Kirkuk region included with the three other provinces which make up part of the Kurdish region.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington ahead of meetings with Bush, Erdogan said point blank that creating a federal structure based on ethnic and sectarian origins could shatter Iraq. The Turkish president went on to say the PKK is strengthening its position in northern Iraq.

Not everyone welcomed the US announcement on the PKK, however. Mahmud Uthman, an independent Kurdish politician and a member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, told RFE/RL that Ankara's accusations regarding the PKK are unfounded and that the US is only seeking to pacify its North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally Turkey: "I think it is not founded, this declaration. [It's] only to satisfy Ankara. There is no basis for it, because first of all, the name has [been] changed from PKK to People's Congress. Their name has changed and they haven't fought or shot a bullet in the last four years."

Some observers have speculated that the US move might spur hostilities between the PKK and Iraqi Kurdish forces. But Uthman says such tensions would work only to Ankara's benefit and that he does not expect clashes between Kurdish factions in Iraq: "[The PKK] does not believe in fighting. They are not using violence at all, either in Turkey or in Iraq. And I think there are no problems now between them and Iraqi Kurdish parties. So I don't see any possibility of fighting. The Turkish government very much wants to see fighting between Iraqi Kurds and those from Turkey, but I don't think they will succeed."

The PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, urged his followers to leave Turkey in 1999, following a 15-year insurgency against Ankara that claimed some 35,000 lives. Some 5,000 PKK fighters and their families are believed to be hiding in the mountains separating northern Iraq from Iran. But Uthman says, according to RFE/RL, that it is unclear how many PKK members are in Iraq and how strong a challenge they might pose if attacked by coalition troops: "Well, I don't know. A few thousand people there are armed; they are like Peshmergas, although they are not using their arms. But there are also some other Kurds from Turkey who are now refugees in camps near Erbil. They are supervised by the United Nations, of course."

While the US is grateful for the Kurds' support and critical intelligence in northern Iraq, there is also evidence that the US State Department continues to be concerned about what it sees as possible links between Kurdish groups and terrorist activities. Despite evidence of several Kurdish splinter groups, several legitimate Kurdish leaders are still going to make their voices heard as parties continue to jockey for position in the evolving political map in Iraq.

On January 25, the London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat web site reported: "The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK], led by Jalal Talabani, member of the transitional Iraqi Governing Council [IGC], has called for holding elections for the assembly that will assume sovereignty from the coalition forces by July 2004 in what he described as a compromise formula. This formula is a compromise between Shi'ite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's call for holding direct elections and the US call for holding elections to choose committees of representatives, who will elect the representatives of the transitional assembly."

Maybe the Kurds, finally, are ready to play a role in helping move Iraq towards elections and self-governance, and the removal of occupying coalition forces. But don't expect the Kurds to stay still, as Erdogan raises Turkey's foreign policy profile, and Syria and Iran also try to curb the aspirations of the Kurdish people.

Mark Berniker is a freelance journalist specializing in Eurasian affairs and regular contributor for Asia Times Online.

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Jan 31, 2004



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