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    Middle East
     Dec 20, 2007
Turkey gets a free hand in Iraq
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - "The Americans are responsible because the Iraqi sky is under their full control." These were the words of Massoud Barzani, a staunch US ally who heads the US-created and backed Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq.

He was referring to the Turkish air strike on northern Iraq carried out this week. This was the largest cross-border operation since the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Barzani knows - in fact everybody in Iraq knows - that the operation could not have taken

place without the green light from Washington. It certainly was not a surprise, since the writing had been on the wall, at least since October.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan has been saying it for months and articulated it very clearly to US President George W Bush when they last met in Washington on November 5. He said that if the Americans did not use their influence to curb - or eliminate - the military activities of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) on the Turkish-Iraqi border, then Turkey would have to act in what it saw as in its best national interest, with or without US approval.

In the absence of any such US efforts, Turkey took the initiative, and the Turkish army reported after the raid: "All intended targets have been successfully hit." Apparently, the US had "depicted" Kurdish militias in northern Iraq and reported its findings to the Turks.

A Turkish official was quoted saying: "It [the military strike] has international backing. We hit specific targets. We will do it again if we have to." Erdogan, who has received parliamentary approval for an operation into Iraq, authorized the army to take action on November 28, after the PKK increased its military operations on Turkey.

On Tuesday, Turkey sent hundreds of troops several kilometers into northern Iraq, then withdrew them later in the day. It is the the first confirmed Turkish ground operation inside Iraq. In a statement posted on its web site, the military said ground forces based close to the border crossed "a few kilometers" into northern Iraq after spotting a group of rebels trying to infiltrate into Turkey. "A heavy blow was dealt to the group," it said.

Turkey, a long-time member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has cooperated with the United States in anti-communist activities since the 1950s. It has been complaining that the Americans have done little to nothing in terms of combating Kurdish militants based in northern Iraq.

Ironically, the Americans believe the PKK is a terrorist group and labels it as such. So does NATO and the European Union. The US is reluctant to clamp down on the PKK in northern Iraq for a variety of reasons. They know - thanks to Turkey - how difficult it is to combat a guerilla movement. The Turks have been doing it since the 1970s and they have not succeeded at bring the PKK to its knees - despite the arrest of the party's founder and leader, Abdullah Ocelan, in the 1990s.

To date, the conflict has cost the lives of 40,000 people in Turkey - and it is far from being over. If the Turks, who know the terrain and are fighting on their own territory, have been unable to eliminate the PKK, then the US, with its very limited hands-on military experience, certainly will not. Plus, the Americans already have too much to cope with, combating a Sunni and Shi'ite insurgency in central Iraq.

They are combating - at once - the Mahdi Army of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, former Ba'athists loyal to ex-president Saddam Hussein, and al-Qaeda. And to say the least, the US is winning none of these wars. It simply cannot open another front in the relatively stable district of northern Iraq. That is why it has turned a blind eye to PKK activity in Iraqi Kurdistan, enabling the military group to set up bases, recruit people and purchase arms for cross-border operations into Turkey.

A second reason for US caution is the fragile political system within Iraq. America's ally, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, has lost all of his principle backers in the Iraqi government. The Sunnis, represented by the Iraqi Accordance Front, have walked out on him since this summer. So has the Sadrist bloc of Muqtada, which is very powerful among young people in the Shi'ite community. The last on the walkout list is former prime minister Iyad Allawi, who has his eyes set on replacing Maliki and who represents a secular, cross-confessional parliamentary coalition.

Maliki's only allies are what remains of the United Iraqi Alliance, an Iran-backed Shi'ite coalition, and two Kurdish blocs headed by Barzani and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. Simply put, Maliki cannot risk alienating Iraqi Kurds - who are supportive of the PKK - or else his government will become unconstitutional.

The Americans know that and they are afraid of what post-Maliki Iraq would look like. Violence has been reduced in recent weeks, thanks to the cooperation of Iran, Muqtada and several Sunni tribesmen who are using US arms to combat al-Qaeda. According to Maliki, violence has dropped by 77%. This is the first "success story" both he and Bush have had in Iraq since the killing of al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006.

To bolster Maliki and enable him to take baby steps towards stability in Iraq, the Americans need Kurdish support for the prime minister. In addition to backing them on the issue of the PKK (without actually saying it), Maliki is also in favor of giving oil-rich Kirkuk, a province between Arabs and Kurds, to Iraqi Kurdistan. He has uprooted thousands of Arab families from Kirkuk, claiming that they were illegally brought there by the former Ba'athist regime, in preparation for a census that was due to be held by December 31. Approval ratings for Maliki are very high in the Kurdish community and any hostile action towards the PKK will ruin his working relationship with the Kurds.

The hands-on reality, however, shows a major u-turn in the US attitude towards the entire crisis. Turkish forces have penetrated kilometers into Iraqi Kurdistan - and the US has not stopped them. It also, however, did not give them explicit approval to do so, and it looked the other way.

This is by no means the largest operation made by the Turks into Iraqi territory. No fewer than 25 similar operations have been made since 1983, often (until 2003) with the support of the Iraqi government. This time, however, the Iraqi government is crying foul play, mainly through its Parliament and ethnic-Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, claiming that Baghdad was neither consulted, nor informed, of Turkish objectives.

That is not true, as Erdogan has been saying it since 2004. When in October the Turkish Parliament approved an operation, the Iraqis should have realized that Erdogan was serious. They probably betted on the US not letting the Turks attack northern Iraq. They were wrong.

What makes this operation different is the amount of information-sharing that has taken place between the Americans and the Turks. This has been the first time that Turkish F-16s fighters were equipped with US-made low altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night vision that makes it easier to spot - and hit - PKK positions.

General Yasar Buyukanit, the Turkish chief of general staff, backed this argument, "America last night opened [Iraqi] airspace to us. By opening the airspace, America gave its approval to the operation." In a strong statement towards the PKK and its patrons in Baghdad, he added, "Even if it is winter, even if there is snow, and even if they live in caves, we will find them and hit them. These operations will continue all the time ... We know these places like the back of our hand."

Tom Casey, a spokesman for the US State Department, made his country's position clear by saying, "We face a common enemy from the PKK. It is a terrorist organization and we certainly want to see actions taken that put it out of business." The same position was echoed by the European Union.

The operations over the past few days have been a preview of what Turkey can do in northern Iraq, although the message carried different meanings to different parties. The Americans are apologizing to the Kurds, saying they had to say yes as they had no other choice. The US would rather upset its Kurdish friends than bring the relative stability that has recently been achieved in Iraq to a halt. The message came across loud and clear to the Kurds, explaining why Barzani refused to meet US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday during her sudden visit to Iraq. He was showing how disgusted the Kurds are with the United States.

Toying with the Kurds - then abandoning them - is not new to the United States. In 1974, Henry Kissinger encouraged Iraqi Kurds to riot against their government in order to drain the energy of the Iraqi army and divert Baghdad's attention from supporting Syria's efforts to combat Israel. Kissinger fanned the flames of conflict in Iraq and was very generous with the Kurds, prompting Mustapha al-Barzani (the father of current leader Massoud) to send him expensive rugs as a token of appreciation and a gold necklace for his bride on the occasion of Kissinger's marriage in March 1974.

This, among Kissinger's numerous endeavors, was revealed during the Watergate investigations of 1976, in what became known as the Pike Report. The testimony said that Kissinger had armed and financed the Kurds to dissuade Iraq from "adventurism", such as coming to the aid of Syria. The report adds, "Our clients, who were encouraged to fight, were not told of this policy." The Kurds were never meant to win, only to weaken Iraq and materialize US interests in the Middle East. The Kurds - Barzani in particular - should know better and re-read the history of their people's friendship with the United States.

The second message was from the Americans to the Sunni tribes that are using US arms to combat al-Qaeda in Iraq, known as the Anbar Awakening Council. These Sunni leaders are very much opposed to giving up Kirkuk to the Kurds. They were applying a policy to wait and see whether the US and Maliki would let oil-rich Kirkuk be annexed to Iraqi Kurdistan. The fact that no census has been made and no plebiscite will take place before the December 31 deadline is a strong message to them. The Americans are saying that they should not worry. Again, this is bad news to the Kurds. If these tribesmen decide to stop combating al-Qaeda - or even worse, to work with it - then Bush is back to square one in Iraq. If appeasing them means keeping Kirkuk with the Arabs and letting Turkey strike at the PKK, then so be it. It is a price the US is clearly willing to pay.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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