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Turkey: Ankara Builds Influence In Northern Iraq

  • Charles Recknagel

Turkey is set to allow diesel smuggling from Iraq to fully resume soon, reversing an earlier decision to reduce it. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports in the second of a two-part series on diesel smuggling, the trade helps Turkey exert influence in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

Ankara, 4 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The offices in Ankara where the representatives of Iraq's two rival Iraqi-Kurd factions meet visitors could hardly be more different.

Safeen Dizayee of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, receives guests in a villa honeycombed with rooms and offices where all the appliances are new and working.

But Shazad Saib of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, has only an apartment in a worn high-rise. The furniture is sagging and his copy machine is out of order.

The irony is that the two offices were once next door in the same building which the PUK has never left. But thanks to the illegal trade in Iraqi diesel to Turkey -- which crosses the KDP's territory but not that of its rival -- the KDP has long since upgraded.

The diesel smuggling, which began soon after the UN slapped a trade embargo on Iraq over the 1990 Gulf crisis, has created a fleet of some 40,000 Turkish trucks which annually ferry several million tons of fuel into Turkey. Local businesses in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq broker the Turkish purchases from Baghdad. And the KDP, which guards its territory between Baghdad-controlled Iraq and Turkey with checkpoints, levies a transit tax as the trucks both come and go.

Turkish analysts estimate the transit fees earn the KDP some $300 to $400 million a year. The money is funding an economic boom in the KDP's territory which is leaving the PUK's area, on the Iranian border, well behind. The PUK's main source of income is taxes on a much more limited truck traffic carrying Turkish consumer goods into Iran.

The KDP's Dizayee says that the diesel trade is tying the economy of his faction's territory close to that of Turkey. Almost all the goods that Kurdish businessmen purchase with their profits from the diesel trade come from Turkey. And Turkish entrepreneurs are beginning to take an interest in the KDP's market. So far, that has spawned several joint ventures in hotels and the opening of the first private supermarket in Dahuk.

Dizayee says this has raised hopes among KDP officials that northern Iraq one day could develop into a regional hub for commerce between Turkey, Iraq and Iran -- if UN trade sanctions on Iraq are lifted.

"The Kurdish region at the moment enjoys a regional administration which believes in a market economy, and the private sector is being encouraged. And we feel that it has the potential to develop into a major free zone in the future, whenever there is a lifting of the embargo or a relaxation of the embargo."

The growing economic links between Turkey and the KDP's territory are good for Ankara because they help to give it influence over events in northern Iraq. Ankara, which supports the territorial integrity of Iraq, frequently expresses fears of a Kurdish-controlled entity taking shape on its eastern border. In the decade since the Gulf War, the KDP and PUK areas of Iraq both have grown used to administering themselves to a degree unseen by Kurds in Turkey's own restive southeast.

Beyond economic links, Ankara also has forged military ties with the KDP to fight the separatist Turkish-Kurd Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which maintains bases in border areas between the KDP and Turkey. In exchange, Ankara has provided battlefield reinforcements to the KDP against the PUK.

PUK officials say divisions between the two Iraqi-Kurd factions are longstanding and are not caused by outside interference. But Ankara's ties with the KDP contribute to Turkey's interest in preventing a strong Kurdish entity arising in northern Iraq. Shazad Saib says:

"Let us say that, frankly, in fact neither Ankara nor any other regional governments were part of the division of Iraqi Kurdistan. The fact of our division is our fault [and] we cannot accuse anybody that they are an element of our division. But on the other hand, every government and every state in the region has its policy, and Turkish policy towards Iraqi Kurdistan is clear, so they deal in their interests."

An early power-sharing agreement between the KDP and PUK -- after northern Iraq fell out of Baghdad's control following the Gulf War -- soon fell apart, and the two sides fought intermittently prior to signing a Washington-brokered accord two years ago. But while the accord calls for reuniting their territories, sharing revenues, and holding elections, they have yet to do more than maintain a ceasefire.

In one sign of Turkey's wariness of any step which might give an appearance of independence for northern Iraq, Ankara has for years forbidden members of non-governmental organizations from crossing into the area from Turkey. The KDP's Dizayee says this is in spite of objections from the European Union.

"Since the last four to five years, Ankara has introduced restrictions on the passage of NGOs, and I believe that the European countries and the EU as a whole have presented demarches to Ankara to allow [them passage] but unfortunately no NGO has been successful so far. Obviously, Ankara has a concern that an independent entity might be established and [that] it gets assistance from the outside world -- this is one of the, perhaps, explanations [for Ankara's actions] that has been circulating."

Meanwhile, smuggled diesel continues to move across the Turkish-Iraq border freely, and the trade is helping northern Iraq develop a growing sense of political and economic self-confidence. The region's standard of living is now higher, and mortality rates lower, than in Baghdad-controlled areas of the country.

Whether such progress in northern Iraq could ultimately come back to worry Turkey is an open question. All parties in the region -- the Iraqi-Kurds included -- say they want Iraq to remain a single state. But how much autonomy the newly prosperous and self-confident Iraqi-Kurds may demand or obtain from any final solution of the Iraqi crisis has still to be negotiated.

(This concludes the two-part series on Turkey and Iraq's diesel trade.)