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    Middle East
     May 13, 2006

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 Kurds.

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 Iranians.

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 and Ankara.

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 July 2004.

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 investment.

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 envoy.

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 April.

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 February.

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 curtly refused.

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).

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Iraqi Kurds finally get unified government (May 12, '06)

Iraq at the mercy of 'kingmaker' Muqtada (May 6, '06)

The Kurdish defection (Mar 25, '06)


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