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Iraq: Turkey Threatens Military Incursion

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

A Turkish Kurd holds a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) flag at a demonstration in Istanbul in March (epa) PRAGUE, July 21, 2006 (RFERL) -- Turkey has said it was taking steps this week to prepare for a cross-border incursion into northern Iraq to hunt down Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters holed up in the Qandil Mountain range. The announcement came following a series of PKK attacks on Turkish troops in recent days that left more than a dozen soldiers dead.

The Turkish General Staff was asked to plan and prepare for a possible cross-border operation following antiterrorism board and ministerial council meetings earlier this week. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed on July 19 that preparations are under way, telling reporters in Ankara: "Authorized institutions and security forces are proceeding with their work. Whatever step needs to be taken will be taken according to the study."

Change In U.S. Stance?

Turkey has tried on several occasions in recent months to pressure the U.S. and Iraqi governments to take action against the PKK. The latest attempt appears to be based on an assumption that the U.S. position regarding cross-border operations has changed.
"Of course, we understand the Iraqi government's position, but if they
are not able to control their land, they should not hesitate to
cooperate with us. If they cannot stop it, we will have to take
action." -- Turkish foreign minister


A "strategic vision" document signed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul in Washington on July 5 stressed the United States' continued commitment to eradicating the PKK, which it considers a terrorist organization.

"We will work very actively with Turkey and also with the new Iraqi government to deal with this problem because, as I have said before and as I said when I was in Turkey, no one wants the PKK to be able to operate, to carry out terrorist attacks against Turkey anywhere, but most especially from northern Iraq," Rice told reporters after their meeting. However, it appears Rice meant diplomatically, not militarily.

The United States maintains that any Turkish military operation could destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan. U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Ross Wilson told Turkey's NTV television on July 17 that the United States would oppose any unilateral action on Turkey's part.

'Iraq Is Not Lebanon'

Wilson denied that the U.S. position reflected a double standard because of its support for Israel's attack on Hizballah positions in southern Lebanon, saying that Israel's circumstances were different. "Turkey has an ally in Iraq. Israel does not have such an opportunity. Besides, [the] PKK is not only in the north of Iraq, it is in Europe and in Turkey. Entering the north of Iraq will not resolve the problem," Anatolia quoted Wilson as telling the news channel. The ambassador's remarks were widely criticized in the Turkish press.

The U.S. Embassy clarified Wilson's remarks in a July 19 statement posted to its website, saying the ambassador's remarks had been misinterpreted in the Turkish media. "Of course, Turkey, like every country, has a right and an obligation to defend itself and its people. For over 50 years, we have stood together as members of an alliance dedicated to collective defense and security.... Working together with the United States and the government of Iraq can be an essential part of advancing Turkish security.

"We look forward to continued close cooperation with Turkey and with the government of Prime Minister Erdogan as our countries address together the threat posed by the PKK and the other security challenges we face," the statement read.

Turkey Looks For Support

Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ali Tuygan summoned the U.S. and Iraqi ambassadors to a July 17 meeting in Ankara and told them to take action against the PKK or else Turkey would.

Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said the parties involved must understand Turkey's resolve in destroying the PKK, which it considers a terrorist group, and that Turkey "will take the appropriate steps decisively and with firmness" to carry out that goal. "We expect support, sincerity, and cooperation from all governments which acknowledged that [the] PKK is a terrorist organization," he noted, referring to the United States and Iraq, Anatolia news agency reported on July 17.

Abdullah Gul (right) with Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari (epa file photo)

Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has been trying to drum up European support for a Turkish incursion. He raised the issue with U.K. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett in London on July 18. Gul told reporters following the meeting that he called for international support against the PKK.

Gul later contended in an interview with the "Financial Times" published on July 20 that the PKK has armed itself with remote-controlled explosives and weapons obtained in Iraq, including from the Iraqi army. "We cannot tolerate this. Definitely we will use all our rights under international law," he said.

Regarding past statements by Iraqi officials that any Turkish military operation would potentially destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan, Gul said: "Of course, we understand the Iraqi government's position, but if they are not able to control their land, they should not hesitate to cooperate with us. If they cannot stop it, we will have to take action."

Gul also told the "Financial Times" that hesitation over letting Turkey join the EU, coupled with U.S. policies in the Middle East, are triggering an anti-Western backlash in Turkey.

Turkey Least Of Iraq's Concerns

Iraqi officials have said little publicly about the threatened incursion. Given the problems faced by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's administration in Baghdad, the timing could not be worse. Security continues to deteriorate, and reports this week by the UN and Iraqi Migration and Displacement Ministry indicate that some 6,000 nationals have been killed in the past two months, and an equal number wounded, while some 32,000 have been displaced in the past three weeks. The ministry estimates that 162,000 Iraqis have been internally displaced over the past five months.

The escalation in regional tensions brought on by the Israeli attacks on Hizballah in Lebanon have further occupied Baghdad, as it considers the ramifications of a broader regional conflict should Israel take action against Hizballah sponsors Iran and Syria.

Kurdish leader and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani issued a strong warning to Turkey on July 13, saying that previous agreements signed between Saddam Hussein and the Turkish government regarding permission for Turkey to carry out cross-border operations were no longer valid.

Referring to Turkey and Iran, which have been carrying out operations against Kurdish fighters along the Iraqi border for several weeks, Talabani said: "The central government in [Baghdad has] conveyed its uneasiness on the issue to the two countries via their embassies. The government has warned the two countries." U.S. officials have also cautioned against any Turkish-Iranian incursion into Iraq, according to Turkish media reports.

Meanwhile, Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told reporters on July 19 that the PKK was an internal Turkish issue and the Kurdistan government had not given safe-haven to the PKK. For Barzani, any instability in his region's relations with Turkey would cost both sides economically.

And this may be the only area where Turkey has leverage. If it succeeds in convincing Iraq's Kurdish leaders that the region will suffer financially, there may be some Kurdish movement on the issue.
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