Iran and Turkey fire salvo over Iraq By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Both Turkey and Iran have been launching military raids into
northern Iraq against a Kurdish paramilitary group that is based there, posing
a dangerous new threat to stability both within Iraq and to the region.
The Iraq-based Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), labeled a terrorist group by
the United States, Britain and the European Union, is a paramilitary party that
preaches Kurdish nationalism, especially in Turkey, where it is demanding
political rights and better living standards for the country's 12 million
Turkey recently launched a massive military operation involving more than
250,000 troops against the PKK (nearly double the number of US troops in Iraq),
concentrated in the mountains along Turkey's borders with Iran and Iraq.
Extensive incursions into
northern Iraq have been reported, aimed at cutting off the PKK's supply lines
to Turkey from its camps in northern Iraq. Turkey also claims that "the PKK has
recently increased its activities and obtained weapons from Iraq".
Iran, meanwhile, has begun attacks on PKK units based in Iran, and the Iranian
military has entered Iraqi territory in hot pursuit of
PKK militants. This represents a different approach from recent years, when
Turkey regularly accused Tehran of turning a blind eye to the PKK in Iran.
The Baghdad government has objected, claiming a violation of its sovereignty,
but both countries insist that they are acting in self-defense.
The PKK wants to create a Kurdish state out of southeastern Turkey,
northeastern Iraq, northeastern Syria and northwestern Iran. PKK broadcasts
have claimed that 2006 would be "a year of destiny" for Kurdish nationalism.
The PKK rebellion, which has hit Turkey the hardest, has led to the death of
35,000 Turks (including 5,000 soldiers) and cost the Turks billions of dollars.
The PKK's long history of violence - and the violence used in turn by the
authorities - all but ceased after its leader Abdullah Ocelan was arrested in
1998, but it resumed activities in June 2004, claiming that the Turkish
military was still attacking it.
In a message to Iraq, Turkey said, "They [PKK] are the infiltrators and we are
protecting our border. Do not allow the terror network to use your territory.
Fight against the terrorists who will only terrorize you in the future."
Another communique issued by Turkey addressing the Iraqis read, "We are not
considering ending our activity there [in Iraq] for as long as the PKK is also
present and active in that area."
The Turks claim that up to 4,000 members of the PKK have been using Iraq to
launch attacks on Turkey.
General Hilmi Ozkok, commander of the Turkish army, asked whether Turkey
planned to seek US permission before further invasions of Iraq, confidently
replied, "We cannot take a decision of that kind based on the US. Every country
is sovereign. Every country makes its own decisions. If the conditions change,
you act by the changing conditions."
To avoid a confrontation, a flurry of diplomacy has taken place in Turkey. Over
the past week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Ankara. So did
members of the US House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee, and Ali
Larijani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief
negotiator on Iran's nuclear portfolio.
Most interesting of the meetings was that of Larijani, who was received with
great honor in Ankara. For six hours, Larijani met with Yigit Alpogan, the
secretary general of the National Security Council, Foreign Minister Abdullah
Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Larijani warned the Turks against PKK infiltration and the chaos prevailing in
Iraq, saying, "We are very worried as a country from this region. If the string
breaks, and it is heading that way currently, it will not be possible to repair
it. We are telling you this plainly now. Later, do not come and complain that
we didn't warn you."
He continued, "Currently, there is solidarity in your country. But if chaos
breaks out, this solidarity will also fall apart. Don't be like Iraq."
The Turks, especially Erdogan, are serious in wanting to eradicate the PKK
threat coming from Iraq. As much as they value their relationship with the US,
they will not tolerate a Kurdish presence on their border.
The Americans, although they have helped fight the PKK in the past,
nevertheless have recently been passive toward its activities in Iran and
Turkey. So has the European Union. While both the US and the EU "oppose" PKK
strikes on Turkey, they also oppose Turkey's militarization of the crisis.
Now Turkey has found an ally in the form of Iranian President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad, who has shown the will - and the army - to support the Turks in
combating the PKK.
Iran has arrested 50 PKK members, and a similar crackdown has taken place in
Syria, a onetime ally and host of the PKK and currently a good friend of the
Ahmadinejad's support for Turkey's offensive on the PKK in Iraq is naturally in
Iran's own interests, but it is also aimed at acquiring a new, strong friend
for Tehran in its confrontation with the international community over its
nuclear program. Reportedly, Ahmadinejad even told the Turks that he would
share his nuclear technology with them.
Erdogan had also met with Ahmadinejad in Baku, Azerbaijan, on May 5 on the
sidelines of the ninth summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization, shortly
before Larijani's visit to Tehran.
This meeting, along with the visit of a high-level Iranian official to Turkey,
certainly angered the Americans. Turkish media responded by claiming that the
PKK attacks on Turkey were allowed by the Americans and the two prominent
Kurdish leaders in Iraq - Masoud al-Barzani, president of the Kurdish region,
and the US-backed president of the country, Jalal Talabani.
While in Ankara, Larijani further upset the Americans by revealing that he had
documents proving US meetings with the PKK (which it considers a terrorist
organization) in Mosul and Kirkuk last month. This was at the level of military
commanders, he said. Larijani asked, "If the US is fighting terrorism, why then
is it meeting with the PKK?"
Talabani said that in his latest meetings with Rice and Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld, he had been given assurances that the Turks would not invade
Iraq because the US would not let them.
A matter of timing
The PKK's escalation of attacks in both Turkey and Iran raises the question of
what it is trying to achieve, especially given the chaotic situation in Iraq.
If it acted at will, without consulting senior Kurdish leaders, this would be a
dangerous sign, indicating problems ahead in Iraq's relations with both Tehran
The same is true, though even more so, if the Kurdish leaders (Talabani
included) approved the offensive - with or without US support.
Analysts point out that, encouraged by the United States, the PKK has been
stirring up trouble in Iraq since 2003, and US troops in Iraq have permitted
its leaders to roam freely and have access to the stockpiles of ammunition
spread all over Iraq.
This situation has the potential to alienate Turkey and the US further. On
March 1, 2003, the United States' relations with Ankara plummeted when the
Turkish parliament vetoed a proposal to allow the Americans to use Turkish
territory to open a second front against Iraq from the north.
Two years later, on March 21, 2005, Rumsfeld spoke to Fox News, bitterly
complaining, "Clearly, if we had been able to get the 4th Infantry Division in
from the north, in through Turkey, more of the Hussein-Ba'athist regime would
have been captured or killed." He added that had Turkey been more cooperative,
"the insurgency today [in Iraq] would be less".
Last year, the Turks broke their isolation with Syria when President Ahmad
Nejdet Sezar visited Damascus to meet with President Bashar Assad. The
Americans had loudly asked him not to make the visit, but Sezar insisted.
In February, Ankara again defied the US by receiving Khalid Meshaal, the head
of the political bureau of Hamas, after the Palestinian resistance movement
emerged victorious in January's elections.
Erdogan had declined an invitation from former prime minister Ariel Sharon to
visit Israel in 2004, again arousing US ire, and did not meet with the
then-Israeli minister of labor and trade, Ehud Olmert, who visited Turkey in
In short, Sezar's visit to Syria, Erdogan's welcoming of Hamas and the current
alliance with Ahmadinejad in effect notify the Americans that an axis will be
formed against them if they continue to encourage Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, and
separatist movements in Tehran and Ankara.
For their part, the Kurds have been trying to appease the Turks to avoid a
head-on clash, knowing that the consequences would bring devastation to the
safe and booming region of Kurdistan, crippling security and foreign
Turkey was invited to attend the inauguration of the new Kurdish parliament
last Sunday, but it failed to send its ambassador. Iran, however, playing the
game more wisely, sent its ambassador to Arbil. The new Kurdish cabinet, headed
by Nechirvan Barzani, was sworn into office in the presence of the Iranian
Other ambassadors were present, including Zalmay Khalilzad of the US and those
from Britain, France and China, and there was even a representative of UN
Secretary General Kofi Annan.
The Kurds appointed Vadet Arslan, a Turkmen, as minister of industry in
Kurdistan, and Abdul-Latif Benderoglu, another Turkmen, as minister of state.
These are the highest two posts given to Turkmens in Iraq.
Meanwhile, back in Baghdad ...
If anything, the problems with Turkey and Iran make domestic Iraqi politics
more difficult. As the world was watching Turkey's brinksmanship, the office of
Talabani announced that 1,091 Iraqis had been killed in Baghdad alone since
On the same day, it was announced that 3,525 Iraqis had been killed since
January. Of these, over 500 were killed by car bombs. Eighteen Iraqis were
killed this Wednesday alone, and the bodies of 13 were found scattered in
Baghdad. Among the dead was Mohammad Mushab al-Amiri, the public relations
officer at the Ministry of Defense.
Meanwhile, prime minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki is still trying to form a
cabinet. He has failed to meet his first deadline and nothing in internal Iraqi
politics indicates that he will succeed any time soon.
Living up to his reputation of being a man who does not stick to his word,
Maliki has abandoned the Sunnis, whom he had promised to give the Ministry of
Defense, in favor of secular former prime minister Iyad Allawi.
Earlier, Maliki announced that Defense would go to the Sunnis, while the
Ministry of Interior would go to the Shi'ites. This was done to appease the
disgruntled Sunni community, which complained that while the Ministry of
Interior had been in the hands of the Iran-backed Shi'ite bloc, the United
Iraqi Alliance (UIA), grand persecution, torture and arrest of Sunnis had taken
place in Baghdad.
UIA minister Bayan Jabr, a sectarian man by all accounts, had used the job to
settle old scores with the Sunnis and prevented his police force from bringing
order to the streets of Iraq, where sectarian violence has been soaring since
The Sunnis were somewhat mollified when it was announced this month that they
would get Defense, while still having fears that not much would change in the
Ministry of Interior if it was kept in the hands of the UIA.
It is no wonder they were taken by surprise when Wael Abdul-Latif, a member of
Allawi's team, gave a press conference in Baghdad this week and said, "The
[Ministry] of Defense has been set for us." A leading Sunni politician, Sheikh
Khalaf al-Alyan, responded, "Giving the Ministry of Defense to al-Iraqiyya
[Allawi's list] breaks the national accord because the chairmanship of the
political committee of national security is also going to Allawi and the
Ministry of Defense is going to the UIA."
He added that "this means that the Arab Sunnis will not participate in
controlling the security portfolios, and they are the ones to have suffered
most from its deterioration". This, he said, would end the Sunnis' confidence
in the security services.
Maliki has also decided to give the portfolios of Oil, Electricity and Finance
to professional officials, regardless of their political affiliations or
sectarian background. By doing so, he will deprive his ally Muqtada al-Sadr,
the influential Shi'ite cleric, of the portfolio of Electricity, which he had
demanded. Muqtada will probably be compensated with another ministry, such as
that of Education or Youth, but he will not be pleased.
The current candidate for Finance is Sinan Shabibi, the governor of the Central
Bank of Iraq, while Dr Husayn Shahristani, a former candidate for the job of
prime minister and a famed yet aging nuclear scientist, is earmarked for the
Ministry of Oil.
Now, with the Shi'ites turning against the Kurds, following Iran's lead in its
attacks on the PKK, Maliki's job becomes all the more impossible. The
Iran-backed Shi'ites of the UIA, of whom Maliki is a member, have only one
thing in common with the Kurds. They support Kurdish autonomy in the north
because it justifies their demanding Shi'ite autonomy in the south.
Apart from that, they meet on practically nothing. The Kurds had a rough and
bumpy ride in their relations with the UIA during Talabani's tenure with prime
minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. The Kurds demanded more powers for the Kurdish
president, at the expense of his Shi'ite prime minister, while the Shi'ites
Now, with divisions clearly opened, one has Talabani (backed by the US) versus
the Shi'ites, backed permanently by Iran and temporarily by Turkey.
In one way, this strengthens the UIA inside Iraq, but it deepens divisions
between the already secular Kurds and religious Shi'ites.
The Turkish-Iranian-Kurdish conflict will take its course. What is clear is
that not only do Iran and the US have an agenda for Iraq and the Middle East,
so too does Turkey.
The only ones, sadly, who have no agenda for Iraq are the Iraqis themselves,
caught as they now are in a vicious battle among Tehran, Washington, Ankara,
Damascus and Baghdad.
Dr Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. He is the author of
Damascus Between Democracy and Dictatorship 1948-1958 (Maryland 2000).