|US's Kurdish ban risks
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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.
Berniker is a freelance journalist specializing in
Eurasian affairs and regular contributor for Asia Times
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