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Turkey snaps over US bombing of its brethren
By K Gajendra Singh

For the first time since the acrimonious exchange of words in July last year following the arrest and imprisonment of 11 Turkish commandos in Kurdish Iraq, for which Washington expressed "regret", differences erupted publicly this week between North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies Turkey and the US over attacks on Turkey's ethnic cousins, the Turkmens in northern Iraq.

Talking to a Turkish TV channel, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul warned that if the US did not cease its attacks on Tal Afar, a Turkmen city at the junction of Turkey, Iraq and Syria, Ankara might withdraw its support to the US in Iraq.

"I told [US Secretary of State Colin Powell] that what is being done there is harming the civilian population, that it is wrong, and that if it continues, Turkey's cooperation on issues regarding Iraq will come to a total stop." He added, "We will continue to say these things. Of course we will not stop only at words. If necessary, we will not hesitate to do what has to be done."

Turkey is a key US ally in a largely hostile region. US forces use its Incirlik military base near northern Iraq. Turkish firms are also involved heavily in the construction and transport business in Iraq, with hundreds of Turkish vehicles bringing in goods for the US military every day. It is an alternative route through friendly northern Kurdish territory to those from Jordan and Kuwait. But many Turks have been kidnapped by Iraqi insurgent groups and some have been killed.

Turkey contains a large ethnic Turkmen population and Ankara has long seen itself as the guardian of their rights, particularly across the border in northern Iraq, where they constitute a significant minority.

The US attacks on Tal Afar, which Iraqi Turkmen groups in Turkey say have left 120 dead and over 200 injured, were launched, the US says, to root out terrorists. The US has denied the extent of the damage, saying that it avoided civilian targets and killed only terrorists it says were infiltrating the town from Syria.

US ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman commented, "We are carrying out a limited military operation and we are trying to keep civilian losses to a minimum. We cannot completely eliminate the possibility [of civilian casualties] ... We believe the operation is being conducted with great care," he said after briefing Turkish officials. There have not been any reports of further attacks since the Turkish warning.

The deterioration in US-Turkish relations underlines the fast-changing strategic scenario in the region in the post-Cold War era after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the September 11 attacks on the US, the US-led invasion on Iraq, now conceded as illegal by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, and the deteriorating security situation in that country.

Despite negative signals on Ankara's mission to join the European Union, Turkey is moving away from the US and closer to the EU - it is even looking to buy Airbuses, and arms, from Europe rather than the US.

At the same time, Turkey is drawing closer to Syria, normalizing relations with Iran and improving economic relations with Russia, as well as discuss with Moscow ways to counter terrorist acts, from which both Russia and Turkey suffer. Russian President Vladimir Putin called off a visit to Turkey when the hostage crisis broke at Beslan in the Russian Caucasus last week.

And Turkey has also moved away from long-time friend Israel, the US's umbilically aligned strategic partner in the Middle East. Turkey has accused Israel of "state terrorism" against Palestinians. A recent ruling party team from Turkey returned from Tel Aviv not satisfied with Israeli explanations over charges that it was interfering in northern Iraqi affairs.

With newspapers full of stories and TV screens showing the Turkmens being attacked in the US operations at Tal Afar, many Turks are angry at what is being done to their ethnic brethren. These have been large protests outside the US Embassy in Ankara, and the belief that the US attacks are a part of a campaign to ethnically cleanse the Turkmens from northern Iraq is widespread.

"Some people are uncomfortable with the ethnic structure of this area, so, using claims of a terrorist threat, they went in and killed people," said Professor Suphi Saatci of the Kirkuk Foundation, one of several Turkmen groups in Turkey.

He claims that the the attacks are a part of a wider campaign to establish Kurdish control over all of northern Iraq, and he points to the removal of Turkmen officials from governing positions in the region to be replaced by Kurds. He also says that the Iraqi police force deployed in northern Iraq is dominated by members of Kurdish factions. "The US is acting completely under the direction of the Kurdish parties in northern Iraq," says Saatci. "Tal Afar is a clearly Turkmen area and this is something they were very jealous of."

While Kurdish officials deny any attempt to alter the ethnic balance in the region, last week Masud Barzani, leader of one of the two largest Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), said that Kirkuk "is a Kurdish city" and one that the KDP was willing to fight for, which certainly did not calm fears of the Turkmens and angered the Turks. Many Turkmen see Kirkuk as historically theirs. Turkey considers northern Iraq - ie Kurdistan - as part of its sphere of influence, especially the Turkmen minority. Ankara is especially concerned that the Kurds in Iraq don't gain full autonomy as this would likely fire the aspirations of Turkey's Kurdish minority.

The US military disputes that its forces laid siege to Tal Afar, saying that the operation was to free the city from insurgents, including foreign fighters, who had turned it into a haven for militants smuggling men and arms across the Syrian border. And a military spokesman denied that Kurds were using US forces to gain the upper hand in their ethnic struggle with the Turkmens. The US characterized the resistance in Tal Afar as put up by a disparate group of former Saddam Hussein loyalists, religious extremists and foreign fighters who were united only by their opposition to US forces.

Gareth Stansfield, a regional specialist at the Center of Arab and Islamic Studies at Britain's University of Exeter, said recently that "the most important angle of what the Turkish concern is [and that is] that there is a strong belief in Ankara that Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister, and the Americans, were suckered into attacking Tal Afar by Kurdish intelligence circles, and really brought to Tal Afar to target ostensibly al-Qaeda and anti-occupation forces with the Kurds knowing full well that this would also bring them up against Turkmens and create a rift between Washington and Ankara over their treatment of a Turkmen city."

Turkey maintains a few hundred troops in the region as a security presence to monitor Turkish Kurd rebels who have some hideouts in the region. But any large-scale presence has been derailed by the objections of Iraqi Kurdish leaders. "That has created an uneasy state of co-existence between Ankara and the two major Kurdish political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a balance which any US military operation in the area could easily disturb."

Stansfield added that the incident shows how volatile tensions remain between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds, despite ongoing efforts by both sides to work together. "The Turkish position has become increasingly more sophisticated over the last months, and arguably years, with Ankara finding an accommodation with the KDP and PUK and beginning to realize that while it is not their favored option to allow the Kurds to be autonomous in the north of Iraq, it is perhaps one of the better options that they are faced with in this situation," said Stansfield.

He added, "However, the relationship between the two principle Kurdish parties and the government of Turkey will always be sensitized by the Kurds' treatment of Turkmens and indeed now the American treatment of Turkmens vis-a-vis Kurds."

Transfer of sovereignty and the Kurds
In January this year, the then Iraqi Governing Council agreed to a federal structure to enshrine Kurdish self-rule in three northern provinces of Iraq. This was to be included in a "fundamental law" that would precede national elections in early 2005. The fate of three more provinces claimed by the Kurds was to be decided later. "In the fundamental law, Kurdistan will have the same legal status as it has now," said a Kurdish council member, referring to the region that has enjoyed virtual autonomy since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

"When the constitution is written and elections are held, we will not agree to less than what is in the fundamental law, and we may ask for more," said the Kurdish council member. Arabs, Turkmens, Sunnis and Shi'ites expressed vociferous opposition to the proposed federal system for Kurdish Iraq. They organized demonstrations leading to ethnic tensions and violence in Kirkuk and many other cities in north Iraq. Many protesters were killed and scores were injured.

However, when "sovereignty" was transferred on June 30 to the interim government led by Iyad Allawi, the interim constitutional arrangement did not include a federal structure for Kurdish self-rule, although to pacify the Kurds, key portfolios of defense and foreign affairs were allotted to them.

A press release from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) stated that "the current situation in Iraq and the new-found attitude of the US, UK and UN has led to a serious re-think for the Kurds. The proposed plans do not seem to promise the expected Kurdish role in the future of a new Iraq. The Kurds feel betrayed once again." It added that "if the plight of the Kurds is ignored yet again and we are left with no say in the future of a new Iraq, the will of the Kurdish people will be too great for the Kurdish political parties to ignore, leading to a total withdrawal from any further discussions relating to the formation of any new Iraqi government. This will certainly not serve the unity of Iraq." Underlining that the Kurds have been the only true friends and allies of the US coalition, the release concluded that "the Kurds will no longer be second-class citizens in Iraq". However, the Kurds did not precipitate matters.

Demographic changes in north Iraq
Kirkuk, with a population of some 750,000, and other towns are now the scene of ethnic and demographic struggles between Turkmens, Arabs and Kurds, with the last wanting to take over the region and make the city a part of an autonomous zone, with Kirkuk as its capital.

The area around Kirkuk has 6% of the world's oil reserves. In April 2003, it was estimated that the population was 250,000 each for Turkmen, Arab and Kurd. A large number of Arabs were settled there by Saddam Hussein, and they are mostly Shi'ites from the south. The Turkmens are generally Shi'ites, like their ethnic kin, the Alevis in Turkey, but many have given up Turkmen traditions in favor of the urban, clerical religion common among the Arabs of the south. Kirkuk is therefore a stronghold of the Muqtada al-Sadr movement which has given US-led forces such a hard time in the south in Najaf. The influential Shi'ite political party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), also has good support, perhaps 40%, in the region. Kurds are mostly Sunnis, and were the dominant population in Kirkuk in the 1960s and 1970s, before Saddam's Arabization policy saw a lot of Kurds moved further north.

According to some estimates, over 70,000 Kurds have entered Kirkuk over the past 17 months, and about 50,000 Arabs have fled back to the south. It can be said, therefore, that now there are about 320,000 Kurds and 200,000 Arabs in the city. The number of Turkmen has also been augmented. During the Ottoman rule, the Turkmen dominated the city, and it was so until oil was discovered. It is reported that, encouraged by the Kurdish leadership, as many as 500 Kurds a day are returning to the city. The changes are being carried out for the quick-fix census planned for October, which in turn will be the basis for the proportional representation for the planned January elections, if these are even held, given the country's security problems. Both the Turkmens and Arabs have said that the Kurds are using these demographic changes to engulf Kirkuk and ensure that it is added to the enlarged Kurdish province which they are planning. The Kurds hope to get at least semi-autonomous status from Baghdad.

North Iraq and Turkey's Kurdish problem
Turkey has serious problems with its own Kurds, who form 20% of the population. A rebellion since 1984 against the Turkish state led by Abdullah Ocalan of the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has cost over 35,000 lives, including 5,000 soldiers. To control and neutralize the rebellion, thousands of Kurdish villages have been bombed, destroyed, abandoned or relocated; millions of Kurds have been moved to shanty towns in the south and east or migrated westwards. The economy of the region was shattered. With a third of the Turkish army tied up in the southeast, the cost of countering the insurgency at its height amounted to between $6 billion to $8 billion a year.

The rebellion died down after the arrest and trial of Ocalan, in 1999, but not eradicated. After a court in Turkey in 2002 commuted to life imprisonment the death sentence passed on Ocalan and parliament granted rights for the use of the Kurdish language, some of the root causes of the Kurdish rebellion were removed. The PKK - now also called Konga-Gel - shifted almost 4,000 of its cadres to northern Iraq and refused to lay down arms as required by a Turkish "repentance law". The US's priority to disarm PKK cadres was never very high. In fact, the US wants to reward Iraqi Kurds, who have remained mostly peaceful and loyal while the rest of the country has not.

Early this month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey's patience was running out over US reluctance to take military action against Turkish Kurds hiding in northern Iraq. In 1999, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire after the capture of its leader, Ocalan. But the ceasefire was not renewed in June and there have been increasing skirmishes and battles between Kurdish insurgents and Turkish security forces inside Turkey. Turkey remains frustrated over US reluctance to employ military means against the PKK fighters - in spite of promises to do so.

Iraqi Kurds have been ambivalent to the PKK, helping them at times. Ankara has entered north Iraq from time to time - despite protests - to attack PKK bases and its cadres. Ankara has also said that it would regard an independent Kurdish entity as a cause for war. It is opposed to the Kurds seizing the oil centers around Kirkuk, which would give them financial autonomy, and this would also constitute a reason for entry into north Iraq. The Turks vehemently oppose any change in the ethnic composition of the city of Kirkuk .

The Turks manifest a pervasive distrust of autonomy or models of a federal state for Iraqi Kurds. It would affect and encourage the aspirations of their own Kurds. It also revives memories of Western conspiracies against Turkey and the unratified 1920 Treaty of Sevres forced on the Ottoman Sultan by the World War I victors which had promised independence to the Armenians and autonomy to Turkey's Kurds. So Mustafa Kemal Ataturk opted for the unitary state of Turkey and Kurdish rebellions in Turkey were ruthlessly suppressed.

The 1980s war between Iraq and resurgent Shi'ites in Iran helped the PKK to establish itself in the lawless north Kurdish Iraq territory. The PKK also helped itself with arms freely available in the region during the eight-year war.

The 1990-91 Gulf crisis and war proved to be a watershed in the violent explosion of the Kurdish rebellion in Turkey. A nebulous and ambiguous situation emerged in north Iraq when, at the end of the war, US president Bush Sr encouraged the Kurds (and the hapless Shi'ites in the south) to revolt against Saddam's Sunni Arab regime. Turkey was dead against it, as a Kurdish state in the north would give ideas to its own Kurds.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the Gulf were totally opposed to a Shi'ite state in south Iraq. The hapless Iraqi Kurds and Shi'ites paid a heavy price. Thousands were butchered. The international media's coverage of the pitiable conditions, with more than half a million Iraqi Kurds escaping towards the Turkish border from Saddam's forces in March 1991, led to the creation of a protected zone in north Iraq, later patrolled by US and British war planes. The Iraqi Kurds did elect a parliament, but it never functioned properly. Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani run almost autonomous administrations in their areas. This state of affairs has allowed the PKK a free run in north Iraq.

After the 1991 war, Turkey lost out instead of gaining as promised by the US. The closure of Iraqi pipelines, economic sanctions and the loss of trade with Iraq, which used to pump billions of US dollars into the economy and provide employment to hundreds of thousands, with thousands of Turkish trucks roaring up and down to Iraq, only exacerbated the economic and social problems in the Kurdish heartland and the center of the PKK rebellion.

But many Turks still remain fascinated with the dream of "getting back" the Ottoman provinces of Kurdish-majority Mosul and Kirkuk in Iraq. They were originally included within the sacred borders of the republic proclaimed in the National Pact of 1919 by Ataturk and his comrades, who had started organizing resistance to fight for Turkey's independence from the occupying World War I victors.

So it has always remained a mission and objective to be reclaimed some time. The oil-rich part of Mosul region was occupied by the British forces illegally after the armistice and then annexed to Iraq, then under British mandate, in 1925, much to Turkish chagrin. Iraq was created by joining Ottoman Baghdad and Basra vilayats (provinces). Turks also base their claims on behalf of less than half a million Turkmen who lived in Kirkuk with the Kurds before Arabization changed the ethnic balance of the region.

With its attacks on Tal Afar, the US is stirring a very deep well of discontent.

K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. Emai: Gajendrak@hotmail.com

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