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    Middle East
     Jun 5, 2007
Needed in Iraqi Kurdistan: Charm offensive
By Henri J Barkey

Northern Iraq, aka Kurdistan, has represented the one success of the US occupation of Iraq. It is quiet and prosperous, and US troops are welcomed by the population there. But this can all crumble in the next six to nine months if Washington is not careful.

Neighboring Turkey, alarmed at the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq and the presence of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) there, may throw caution to the wind by engaging in a 

cross-border military operation. Such an event is likely to pit Ankara, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, against both the United States and its Kurdish allies.

Fighting between Turks and Kurds in Iraq could spread to Turkey itself and, in the end, lead to a severe rupture in US-Turkish relations. An unstable and violent northern Iraq would deal a fatal blow to the United States' Iraq project by accelerating, widening and deepening the current inter-communal carnage.

Turkey, which has a sizable and restive Kurdish minority of its own, is fearful of the demonstration effect of the gains achieved by Iraqi Kurds. It has tried to resist not only Kurdish independence but also Kurds' attempts at incorporating the oil-rich city of Kirkuk into their area, thereby facilitating any future bid for independence. Renewed confrontations with the PKK in Turkey with concomitant increases in casualties have further soured the Turkish mood and have contributed to the rise of xenophobic nationalism and political instability in that country.

The Turks blame the Iraq war for creating the conditions that have given rise to a potential independent Kurdish state. They also accuse the US of ignoring Turkish red lines on Kirkuk and federalism and demands to take action against the PKK. In fact, Turks are convinced that the US prefers its newfound Kurdish friends to its old NATO ally. Widespread disaffection with the US - exacerbated by politicians, pundits and generals - has translated into increasing public pressure for a unilateral Turkish move into Iraq.

Ankara has also stepped up its attacks on the approach of Iraqi Kurds to Kirkuk, accusing them of forcibly changing the demographics of the city and mistreating the Turkoman population, with whom Turkey has cultivated ties. It wants Washington to use its influence to prevent Iraqi Kurds from incorporating Kirkuk into the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) through a referendum mandated by the Iraqi constitution to take place by the end of this year.

Last August, with Turkish patience waning, a move into northern Iraq was averted by last-minute diplomacy and the appointment of a special US negotiator, retired General Joseph Ralston, to work with the Turks on the PKK. Although both the United States and Turkey are well aware of the stakes involved, the fact remains that the continued stalemate is hostage to a flare-up of violence, a miscalculation or even an accident, especially now that Turkey will be beset with uncertainty as it struggles with its constitutional crisis after last month's failed presidential election.

If current trends hold, Iraq's future will be determined by the separation of its three communities - whether this is within a loose federation or through three independent states. No amount of threats will alter a final outcome that may not be to the liking of either Washington or Ankara.

Ankara's options are quite limited. Turkey can actively align itself with Iran and Syria, two other neighboring countries with sizable and restless Kurdish populations of their own, to prevent the Kurds from achieving their goals. Such an alignment, however, would seriously undermine Iraq's already tenuous future and run afoul of the Americans and the Europeans.

A large anti-PKK cross-border military intervention risks embroiling the Turks in a guerrilla campaign with Iraqi Kurds that, as the Americans have discovered, they cannot win. Such an action would have extremely serious ramifications for Ankara's standing with the United States and the European Union.

Moreover, Turkey's Kurdish regions would erupt in violence were the Turks to intervene against their Iraqi brethren. Finally, Ankara has also closed the door on prospective amnesty for PKK fighters other than the leadership cadres for fear of appearing irresolute.

Today, domestic-nationalist considerations drive a war of words between Ankara and Iraq's Kurds over Kirkuk.

Nevertheless, the Turks' fear of their own Kurdish minority - estimated at 20% of their population - is as neuralgic as it is existential. Since the inception of the Turkish republic in 1923, Turkish Kurds, in one form or another, have agitated for greater rights and recognition.

These efforts at times assumed a violent character, as with the PKK-led insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s, or more often than not have followed a path of increased political mobilization. Either form of activity has been seen as dangerous by the Turkish state, which until a little more than a decade ago had refused to acknowledge the Kurds' existence.

The fear of further Kurdish mobilization in Turkey has hampered Ankara's cooperation with the KRG. Ankara has tried its best to ignore the KRG's existence on the grounds that the Iraqi constitution has yet to assume its final and definitive shape. Outgoing Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, despite his government's entreaties, has obstinately refused to invite Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to Ankara simply because the latter is a Kurd from northern Iraq.

The Turkish chief of the General Staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, forced the cancellation of an unofficial meeting between the Turkish foreign minister and KRG Prime Minister Nechrivan Barzani by publicly admonishing his government for meeting with people he claimed were "supporting the PKK militarily".

For the civilian and military establishment and its allies, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Kurds represent the most pressing dangers facing the republic - Islamic fundamentalism and separatism. These domestic tensions are being played out against the backdrop of a nationalist revival, increasing xenophobia and anti-Western feelings. Turks are being fed a daily barrage of news that not only accentuates these sentiments but recounts and warns of massacres of Turkomans in Iraq, whether in Kirkuk or Tal Afar.

For all these reasons, the Iraq dossier has come to represent the Turkish government's Achilles' heel. It is vulnerable to accusations of being soft on Iraqi Kurds, the US and the PKK presence in Iraq. Unable to undermine its overwhelming parliamentary majority, the anti-AKP establishment has tried to force the government's hand to initiate some kind of cross-border military operation against the express will of the US military in Iraq and Iraqi Kurds.

The Turkish government - especially Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - has contributed to these tensions by adopting a combative stance of its own. Erdogan, to protect his nationalist flank, has publicly said Turkey will not remain a spectator to events in Kirkuk, thereby raising the specter of an intervention and outpacing the military.

The Kurds have assumed erroneously that their privileged position in Iraq protects them from the vagaries of both US and Turkish policies. Barzani's discourse has had an inflammatory impact on the Turkish domestic political scene, and Washington not only has to impress on the Kurds the precariousness of their current situation but also make use of its considerable influence with the KRG to change its tactics.

The KRG's strategic imperative requires it to get along with Ankara, and it is in serious need of a "charm offensive" there.

(Used by permission the National Interest Online.)

(For the original article, click here)

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