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     Jan 22, 2005
The Kirkuk tinderbox
By K Gajendra Singh

There is much media focus on the inauguration of US President George W Bush for his second term, as well as the Iraqi elections scheduled for January 30. But the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk in north Iraq remains a dangerous tinderbox. Even the losing US presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, who voted against the nomination of Condoleezza Rice as the next secretary of state in the Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee, felt compelled to warn of possible turmoil in Kirkuk, which has been a bone of contention between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens - Turkey's ethnic cousins, with Ankara taking up their cause regularly.

Kurdish influx into Kirkuk
Namik Tan, the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman, told a press conference on January 19 that the Iraqis, the United Nations and the entire international community should take measures against "fait accomplis that will not contribute to lasting peace in Iraq ... and have negative impacts on the stability of the region". "No one in the 21st century can subject others' land to illegal fait-accomplis," Tan said, without explicitly naming the Kurds. "It is unacceptable for groups which object to the wrong policies and practices of the past to commit the same mistakes themselves now, under the cover of freedom, justice and democracy," he added.

Tan said that many people in Kirkuk were now concerned that "some elements are drifting toward a mistake which may have grave consequences. They say that hundreds of thousands of settlers are being shifted to Kirkuk, and the majority of them have neither personal nor family bonds with Kirkuk. The methods and mechanisms of return have been clearly determined. They should be implemented in a legitimate way," Tan concluded.

Last week, the Kurds reached a deal with the Iraqi government that will allow nearly 100,000 Kurds, said to have been expelled from Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein's regime, to vote in the January 30 elections. This agreement would change the demographic balance and risks the eruption of tensions in the ethnically divided and volatile city between Kurds and Arabs, and a large number of Turkmens. Ankara is strongly opposed to Kurdish control of Kirkuk, which many Kurds would like to make the capital of an independent Kurdish state.

Located in northern Mosul province about 250 kilometers north of Baghdad near the foot of the Zagros mountains, underneath Kirkuk lie more than 10 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. It has key oil sites, although pipelines connecting it to Ceyhan terminal in Turkey have been repeatedly damaged. Often compared to Jerusalem because of conflicting claims, Kurds claim Kirkuk as a symbol of Kurdish heritage. Many Kurdish leaders, such as Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) among them, claim that Kirkuk is historically Kurdish.

There have been repeated clashes between Turkmens and Kurds over the past 50 years. In 1959, there were bloody riots between poorer and communist led Kurds and the Turkmens. The latter belonged to the ruling elite in the Ottoman era and are still prosperous. In 1996, during a brief rapprochement with the Baghdad regime, the Iraqi military executed 17 Turkmen activists and officials in the nearby city of Irbil. Iraqi Turkmens blame this event on the Kurds. There were ethnic flare-ups between 1998 and 2000 as well.

According to UN officials and a Human Rights Watch report, it is claimed that between 120,000 and 200,000 Kurds, as well as Turkmens and Assyrians, were expelled from the city after 1991, tens of thousands were squeezed out earlier. Iraqi Kurds claim that Kirkuk was overwhelmingly Kurdish in the 1950s before the "Arabization" of the city.

In April 2003 it was estimated that the Kirkuk population was composed of 250,000 each of Turkmens, Arabs and Kurds. Many of the Arabs resettled there are Shi'ites from the south. The Turkmens are also 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 Muqtada al-Sadr. The influential Shi'ite political party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), also has good support. Kurds are mostly Sunnis, and were the dominant population in Kirkuk up to the 1960s and 1970s, when many were forced to move further north.

According to some reports, over 70,000 Kurds have entered Kirkuk in the past two years, and about 50,000 Arabs returned to the south. It can be said that till recently there were 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 so it was until the discovery of oil.

According to the US-crafted interim constitution of Iraq, Kirkuk's final status will be settled only after Iraq's final constitution is ratified at the end of 2005, followed by a census.

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 those of 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 US$6 billion to $8 billion a year.

The rebellion died down after the arrest and trial of Ocalan in 1999, but it has not been fully 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 and the release from jail of pro-PKK Kurdish members of parliament, some of the root causes of the Kurdish rebellion were removed. The European Union (EU)-Turkey accord of December 17 last year guarantees political and cultural freedoms for Kurds .

But the PKK - now also called Konga-Gel - shifted almost 4,000 of its cadres to northern Iraq and refused to lay down arms. In 1999, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire, but it was not renewed in June last year. 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. The US's priority to disarm PKK cadres was never very high. In fact, the US wants to reward Iraqi Kurds, who have remained peaceful and loyal, unlike the rest of the country.

Iraqi Kurds have been ambivalent toward the PKK, helping them at times, more so now. 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 causes belli. It determinedly opposes the Kurds seizing the oil centers around Kirkuk, which would give them financial autonomy, which 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 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 also 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. But Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed autonomy under US protection since 1991.

Warning by Turkish armed forces
The Turkish armed forces have repeatedly warned Iraqi Kurds against attempts to change Kirkuk's demography. "Some ethnic groups are pursuing efforts to change the demographic structure of Kirkuk while steps are being taken to bring stability to Iraq," the deputy head of the General Staff, General Ilker Basbug, told a monthly media briefing in Ankara in July , 2004

"We expect the interim government of Iraq to prevent that," he added. The general warned that failure to find a "just and lasting solution" to the status of the disputed city would threaten Iraq's territorial and political integrity. "Such a development would be seen as a serious security concern for Turkey," Basbug said.

Basbug continued, "It is true that this issue is an internal affair of Iraq, but this region carries the greatest risk regarding the future of Iraq. We are concerned that wrong steps may plunge Iraq into internal strife ... and therefore it is out of the question for us to stay outside this issue. We want the preservation of Iraq's territorial integrity and political unity and we want [stability] established in Iraq as soon as possible," he added.

Basbug warned that confrontation between different ethnic groups would be inevitable if "it [oil] is owned entirely by a certain group ... this will plunge into confrontation groups in the region whose expectations are not met," he said. He claimed that Turkey's concerns were shared "at the highest level by the United States".

Military contingency plans for north Iraq
In October/November, 2004 it was widely reported that the Turkish military had begun drafting contingency plans for a possible invasion of northern Iraq in early 2005, with at least 20,000 troops. Officials said that the Turkish General Staff had urged approval from the government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and to sound out the US. "The current phase is to show the United States that we're serious," a Turkish government source said. "After the Iraqi elections in January, the Turkish military will be ready to move." It would be a major offensive in northern Iraq to prevent Kurdish militias from controlling the area. The Turks were very concerned by the reported Kurdish effort to squeeze out ethnic Turks from Kirkuk.

In mid-October, Erdogan and his cabinet reviewed first the plan with Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok and Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul, with a planned rapid deployment of up to 40,000 troops in northern Iraq, operational within 18 hours of approval. A scaled-down version of the military plan was then discussed in the National Security Council on October 27. The first goal of the ground operation, supported by fighter-jets and attack helicopters, would be to destroy PKK strongholds in the Kandil mountains in northern Iraq.

The General Staff warned the government that it could no longer ignore the Kurdish threat, more so as Kurds from Iran and Syria had reportedly supported the PKK, and some even participated in PKK attacks in southeastern Turkey. Turkish officials said that the Peshmerga (paramilitary) had dug tunnels and established outposts outside Dahouk, near the Turkish border. In spite of Turkish complaints and US assurances to begin with, the US has refused to eliminate PKK strongholds. Washington also did not give any implicit approval of Turkish contingency plans.

Recent US-Turkish meetings
There have been some recent meetings to discuss the Iraq situation. Before the meetings, when asked about US military action against the PKK in north Iraq as part of their agenda, the US ambassador to Ankara, Eric Edelman, told Turkey's Zaman.com (January 7), "I don't think that is likely to come up because our immediate preoccupation in terms of the use of our military assets is to provide security for the elections on January 30. And that's the immediate goal."

Further asked about the US's position if Kurds applied to the United Nations for independence, he said, "We fight for Kirkuk. Our position is clear. We believe in an Iraq that is unified and whose territorial integrity is complete and whole. Mr [Masoud] Barzani [leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party] is free to say whatever he wants. I can't tell him what to say, nor can anybody else. And I'm not sure telling him would keep him from saying it anyway."

During his talks last week, US commander in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, reiterated to the Turkish government that he could not spare any troops for an assault on PKK guerrillas. While the US has declared the Marxist PKK a terrorist organization, he added, "We also understand - all of us understand - that our troops have a lot of work to do there along with the Iraqi security forces, and we agree that, over time, we must deal with the PKK." The general's statement, little different from the assurances given by other US officials over the past year, was unlikely to ease either the Turkish government's distrust or public hostility toward US policy in Iraq.

A State Department delegation led by Laura Kennedy, deputy under secretary of state, discussed PKK incursions and activities with Turkish and Iraqi officials in Ankara last week. A statement after the meeting underlined that the US preferred the Iraqis and Turks to sort out the problem bilaterally.

Turkey complains that the US has done little in Iraq to discourage the PKK from evicting the Turkmen population from Kirkuk, or to prevent frequent kidnappings and killings of Turkish workers and truck drivers in Iraq. Turkey fears that that an overwhelming victory by Iraqi Shi'ites in the January elections could encourage Iraqi Kurds to solidify their semi-autonomous status in north Iraq.

Fissures between allies
The current differences over the US-led war on Iraq between the Cold War allies since the collapse of the Soviet Union are only symptoms of the changing strategic equation in the region and elsewhere. It was brought into sharp focus when the Turkish parliament refused in early March, 2003 a US request to allow its forces to open a second front into north Iraq. Tensions between them have erupted into warnings and embarrassing incidents from time to time - like the acrimonious exchange of words in July, 2003 following the arrest and imprisonment of 11 Turkish commandos in north Kurdish Iraq, for which Washington expressed "regret".

In September, 2004 differences erupted publicly again over US attacks on the Turkmens in northern Iraq. 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."

Apart from the US's umbilically attached strategic ally Israel, Turkey is still a key ally in a largely hostile region. US forces use its Incirlik military base near north Iraq. Turkish firms are also involved heavily in the construction and transport business in Iraq. It provides an alternative route through friendly northern Kurdish territory from those from Jordan and Kuwait.

Another cause for a spat was the US invasion of Fallujah to "pacify the city". Turks in general and many members of parliament denounced it. Mehmet Elkatmis, chairman of parliament's Human Rights Investigation Commission, in an extraordinary session, condemned the US for committing "genocide", in Iraq, which angered Washington. "Iraq's occupation has turned into the genocide of Iraqi people," the Anatolia quoted Elkatmis as saying. "There is no example of such violence and genocide in history ... [It is] worse than the times of Hitler and Mussolini." Elkatmis also claimed that the US used chemical and nuclear weapons in Iraq. A US diplomat in Ankara, speaking on condition of anonymity, described Elkatmis' comments as ridiculous, and said the claim that the US had used either chemical, nuclear or cluster bombs were false.

In a public statement, the Religious Affairs Directorate, attached to the Prime Minister's Office, lamented that there was an "unstoppable humanitarian tragedy" and that the war in Iraq had "turned into savageness". The government, on the other hand, tried to alleviate the resentment. A team of Foreign Ministry bureaucrats gave a briefing to members of the Human Rights Investigation Commission, but Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, when asked to comment on Elkatmis' remarks, declined to take a position. He said that everyone was free to express their opinion in open societies, but added that Turkey was already doing its best in frankly explaining to its North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally whenever it did something wrong. "In view of the importance we attach to Turkish-US friendship, we are explaining to American officials everything that we deem to be wrong in the region." He said that "excessive use of force in Iraq" was of great concern. The Foreign Ministry said Turkey sent humanitarian aid, including tents, food and medicine to Fallujah. Erdogan also conveyed to US Vice President Dick Cheney Turkey's concerns about Fallujah.

Until the third week of December, the Turkish leadership was totally focused on getting a date to start negotiations for Turkey's entry into the EU. While the deal was far from satisfactory, it was a positive development for the ruling party, having anchored the country to Europe. It can expect help and support from Europe. In any case, Turkey's policies on Iraq, Iran and the region are now closer to the EU positions than the US's.

Erdogan recently completed a visit to Moscow, soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin's postponed visit to Ankara last month, the first since 1973. While relations between Turkey and US have cooled down primarily over Iraq, Turkey has come closer to its historic enemy Russia. After the exchange of visits by Erdogan and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to Ankara, relations between them, historically soured by Shi'ite and Sunni rivalry and enmity, are improving in the background of the turmoil in Iraq and increasing chaos in the region. It is going to get worse.
In 1999, Ankara threatened to invade Syria if it did not expel Abdullah Ocalan (which it did and he was captured and imprisoned in Turkey ), but since then relations between Syria and Turkey have warmed up, with an exchange of visits by Syrian President Bassar Assad and Erdogan. There is talk of Russia supplying state-of-the-art missiles to Syria. In the past Turkey would have denounced such a deal. At the same time relations between Turkey and Israel, which were very close during the Cold War and reached an almost "allies" level after the fall of the Berlin Wall, have deteriorated sharply, with Erdogan accusing Israel of state terrorism and asking it to leave Kurdish north Iraq alone. Israel has been training Kurdish Peshmergas to operate in the neighborhood, specially in Iran and Syria.

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. Email Gajendrak@hotmail.com

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