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    Middle East
     Apr 14, 2007
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Iraqi Kurds play with Turkish fire
By M K Bhadrakumar

A controversial interview with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani by Al-Arabiya television last weekend may convey a superficial impression that events in northern Iraq could be spinning beyond the control of the United States.

Barzani has always been outspoken in asserting the Kurdish people's rights of national self-determination, but this time he was out of line, threatening that he would stoke the fires of Kurdish

sub-nationalism within Turkey.

In Ankara's tense political climate in the run-up to a controversial presidential election scheduled for May-June, Barzani touched raw nerves that might well come to impact on the outcome of the election itself. Meanwhile, several questions arise to which there are no easy answers. The key question is, did anyone prod Barzani to speak?

Washington has scurried to cool tempers. Indeed, Turks don't like being threatened, and Barzani has done it in full view of the Arab Middle East that formed part of the proud history of the Ottomans. Also, it was the second time within the week that Turkish pride took a blow. Earlier, Baghdad announced, no doubt with Washington's prior consent, that the venue of a meeting of foreign ministers for a conference on Iraq on May 3-4 would be Cairo, and not Istanbul as originally planned.

Barzani gave the interview on February 28, but for some obscure reason it was broadcast six weeks later, on April 6. But then, coincidence or not, last week Turkish media reported that Washington was getting increasingly annoyed by Turkey's growing proximity ("strategic cooperation") with Iran. Was Barzani capitalizing on the contradictions in Turkish-US relations? Finally, there are the mysterious goings-on between Barzani and Israeli operatives. In his interview, Barzani made exceptionally friendly references to Israel.

Israel, of course, has an old connection with the Kurds of northern Iraq. According to Seymour Hersh, Israeli intelligence uses northern Iraq for staging subversive activities inside Iran. Hersh wrote in The New Yorker magazine three years ago that Israel also has its eyes on the fabulous oil and gas fields in the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. Southern Kurdistan alone is estimated to hold 45 billion barrels of oil and 100 trillion cubic meters of gas.

The Israeli presence in the Kurdish areas has inevitably cast its shadows on Turkey's relations with Israel. Recently, Israel has also been unhappy over the Erdogan government's dealings with the Hamas-led Palestinian government and with Tehran. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently invited Palestinian Prime Minister and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to visit Ankara.

Certainly, there could be more than one reason that Barzani challenged Turkey. In the interview, his attention was drawn to the Turkish opposition to the inclusion of Kirkuk in the Kurdish autonomous region. The Iraqi constitution provides for holding a referendum in Kirkuk by the end of this year on bringing that province into the Kurdistan confederacy, which at present comprises Irbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah.

Barzani shot back: "We will not allow Turks to interfere in the issue of Kirkuk ... Kirkuk is an Iraqi city of Kurdish identity ... Turkey has no right to interfere in the issue of Kirkuk. If it does, we will interfere in the issue of Diyarbakr and other cities," he said in reference to cities in predominantly Kurdish-populated southeastern Turkey.

When asked whether he was threatening Ankara, Barzani said, "If we are denied our right to settle down and live freely, I swear by God that we will not allow others to live in security or stability. We are ready to defend our freedom and our cause to our end."

Specifically asked about his views on Kurdish militancy in Turkey, Barzani said, "Frankly speaking, we support their rights. We do not interfere in their affairs. They choose their way to demand their rights or to struggle for their rights ... They do not ask us and we are not ready to interfere in their affairs, but we support them morally and politically ... It is impossible to support them with weapons, but we are ready to help them with all other means."

Predictably, the reaction in Ankara has been sharp. A columnist warned that one day Barzani would come to Ankara "to lick its boots and to say that he is sorry". Erdogan, who favors a political settlement of problems in Turkey's Kurdish regions through sustained economic development and an inclusive state policy, was put on the defensive. His government is already being pilloried for being "soft" on national-security issues. With a presidential election on the horizon and parliamentary elections to follow within a few months, Erdogan warned Barzani that he'd be "crushed under his words".

The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a note to the Iraqi government reminding the latter about the need to curb trans-border terrorism. Ankara let it be known that it might raise the northern-Iraq situation at next month's international conference on Iraq in Cairo.

Most important, Ankara made a demarche with Washington about Barzani's "extremely disturbing, unacceptable and provocative" statement. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul spoke to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Foreign Ministry officials quoted Gul as telling Rice, "Barzani should be urged in the strongest way not to repeat his threats against Turkey."

Turkish diplomacy is doing its utmost to harmonize differences with the United States. Clearly, Turkey would like to get Washington to postpone the Kirkuk referendum so that a crisis can be averted. Turkey draws attention to its special bonds with the US. Last week Turkey accepted the responsibility of taking over the command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in the Kabul region for a period of eight months until December, and increased the size of its military contingent in Afghanistan from 750 troops to 1,150.

But Ankara has never really acclimatized itself to the existence of the US-backed Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) based in northern Iraq. It fears that the KRG, headed by Barzani, will incrementally serve as a pole of attraction for Turkey's Kurds; that the KRG will get emboldened to lend direct support to Kurdish terrorists operating inside Turkey; that as time passes, the KRG will garner international sympathy for the idea of wider Kurdish national self-determination.

Indeed, Turkey has gone against the US and asked Iraqi leaders directly if it can launch cross-border raids into Iraqi territory to strike Kurdish rebel groups in the area. Turkish army chief General Yasar Buyukanit said on Thursday, "An operation into Iraq is necessary," adding that the army's main rival, the Kurdistan Workers Party, "has spread its roots" and obtained "huge freedom of movement in Iraq".

Ankara visualizes the possibility that the KRG could lead to the emergence of a fully independent and sovereign Kurdish state by design or by default, and that this could threaten Turkish territorial integrity. Also, the stark reality is that US President George W Bush has no strategy for victory in Iraq. Turkey is uneasy that the US Congress might end up mandating a rapid pullout from Iraq. What happens then?

US public opinion may prove to be averse to a violent suppression of Kurdish aspirations for self-determination. It may be

Continued 1 2 

A Turkish puzzle over Iraq (Apr 6, '07)

Fleeing Iraqi Arabs get Kurds' cold shoulder (Mar 30, '07)

Iraq's good terrorists, bad terrorists (Mar 27, '07)

Iraqi Kurds fear a new war (Mar 14, '07)


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