Accessibility links

Turkey: PKK Migration Complicates Peace In Northern Iraq

  • Charles Recknagel

As the Turkish-Kurd Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) says its fighters are withdrawing from Turkey, many are expected to relocate to bases in northern Iraq. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, any relocation is only likely to complicate the fragile peace between northern Iraq's two main Iraqi-Kurd factions.

Prague, 9 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The PKK's announcement that it is withdrawing fighters from Turkey may herald a new period of quiet in southeast Anatolia, where a 15-year struggle by the PKK for autonomy has left more than 30,000 people dead.

But it is likely to spell trouble for northern Iraq, where the withdrawing PKK fighters are believed to be relocating.

The PKK said last week that it has begun moving its fighters out of Turkey in line with a request by leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been imprisoned and sentenced to death by Ankara. Ocalan's brother, Osman, said that a quarter of the rebel forces have already left Turkey and the rest will be out by the end of this year.

Abdullah Ocalan made a new appeal three days ago for all PKK fighters to go to northern Iraq. He also called on them not to fight with Iraqi-Kurd groups but to move into a Turkish-Kurd refugee camp between the northern Iraqi cities of Arbil and Kirkuk. The camp, which had been in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, was relocated by the United Nations to a Baghdad-controlled area after it was attacked in a Turkish army sweep across the border a year ago.

So far, it is unconfirmed whether the PKK withdrawal has begun. A senior leader of the Iraqi-Kurd Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Sami Abdul-Rahman, spoke to Radio Free Iraq from northern Iraq recently. He said that most PKK fighters have long been based in northern Iraq. Abdul-Rahman said that he has seen no new large movement of PKK fighters across the border in the past weeks.

"The PKK has only a small number of fighters in Turkey's Kurdistan. They never succeeded in creating a liberated zone there as a base for their fighters. Because the PKK force in Turkey is insignificant, we have not seen any evidence of fighters crossing the borders to Iraqi Kurdistan."

While it still is unclear how many PKK fighters may actually withdraw from Turkey, the arrival of any sizable new force in northern Iraq is sure to threaten the already delicate power balance there between the area's two rival Iraqi-Kurd factions.

The reason is that one of the rivals, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has long been believed to have close ties with the PKK, although it denies this. The other, the KDP, is the PKK's sworn enemy and an ally of Turkey. In their on-again, off-again war to dominate northern Iraq, each of the Iraqi-Kurd factions has made frequent use of their allies to attack the other.

Reports from Iraqi Kurdistan indicate that both the KDP and PUK are already seizing on the volatile issue of the PKK to slow down their implementation of a Washington-brokered peace agreement between them last year.

In the accord, signed in Washington, both sides agreed to keep the PKK out of northern Iraq. The KDP is now accusing the PUK of continuing to work with the Turkish-Kurd group in violation of the accord, and has said it will not implement other clauses in the agreement until the cooperation stops. The PUK, in turn, has accused the KDP of simply trying to stall the Washington peace deal.

The two parties had agreed in Washington to begin revenue sharing, to unite their administrations and to hold elections to reconstitute a parliament by this summer. But Radio Free Iraq correspondents in northern Iraq say that any real progress toward building shared institutions is now largely on hold. The two sides are holding periodic joint meetings to discuss issues, but there is no preparation for parliamentary elections and no new time frame for polls has been set.

In recent weeks, the dispute over the PKK has grown more heated, as KDP leader Masoud Barzani has demanded that PUK leader Jalal Talabani join him in declaring the PKK a terrorist organization. He also has called on Talabani to commit his forces to helping expel the PKK from northern Iraq.

Barzani controls a broad swath of northern Iraq bordering Turkey, but the PKK has long threatened him by carving out bases in the forbidding mountains along the frontier. The PKK's presence is both a military and economic menace because the KDP largely finances itself by facilitating and taxing a lively trade in smuggled oil between Baghdad and Turkey.

Talabani, who controls an area of northern Iraq south of Barzani's and bordering Iran, has refused the KDP's call to arms. Instead, he has repeated long-standing accusations that Barzani is ready to betray their common Turkish Kurd brethren on behalf of Ankara. Talabani strongly values his alliance with the PKK because the partnership makes Barzani vulnerable on both his northern and southern flanks.

The PKK's total strength, including fighters now scattered in small groups across southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq and Iran, is thought to number some 4,000 well-armed guerrillas. That is more than enough to make the group a major player in northern Iraq. The forces of the KDP and PUK are believed to number some 50,000 men each, but large numbers of their fighters are tied down manning defensive positions against one another.

As each Iraqi Kurd side now debates the new dangers -- or opportunities -- posed by the PKK, each is also hedging its bets by tightening alliances with outside powers.

In recent months, the KDP has steadily moved closer to Turkey despite the increased hostility that this is certain to attract from Baghdad. Iraq had allied with the KDP in 1996 to help it drive the PUK out of northern Iraq and into Iran. But the Baghdad-KDP alliance weakened last year over the KDP's refusal to sign a pact with Baghdad to return Iraqi-Kurdistan -- which is protected by a U.S.-British no-fly zone -- to President Saddam Husseyn's control.

The PUK, which later recaptured from the KDP all of its lost territory except the main city of Arbil, is now profiting from the breakdown of ties between Baghdad and the KDP to forge its own relations with Saddam. At the same time the PUK is reaching out to Syria and Iran by using its good relations with the PKK.

The emerging new balance of power now appears to loosely pit two camps against one another: the KDP and Turkey on the one hand and the PUK, PKK, Baghdad, Iran and, to some extent, Syria on the other.

Radio Free Iraq's correspondents in the area say there are no signs that hostilities are likely to break out between the two Iraqi-Kurd factions in the near future. But all the alliance-making being done in case fighting resumes has effectively slowed any serious efforts to cooperate.

Meanwhile, the lack of cooperation means there is still almost no freedom of movement in northern Iraq between the KDP and PUK-controlled areas except by special permission from both sides.

The border between the two sides' territories is lined with armed checkpoints, and only rare envoys and well-connected businessmen travel across. And although in last year's Washington accord both sides committed to work toward repatriating the thousands of refugees who were displaced in the fighting between them, no repatriation has yet taken place.

The KDP and PUK have jointly ruled northern Iraq since it fell out of Baghdad's control in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. Their partnership collapsed in 1994 because of disputes over how to share power and revenues, most of which come from oil smuggling across the Turkish border.