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U.S./Turkey: War Plans Put Fate Of Northern Iraq's Oil Fields In The Balance

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

As the United States strives to convince NATO member Turkey to endorse possible military action against Iraq, Ankara has rekindled a nearly 80-year-old territorial controversy stemming from the upheaval that followed the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. A Turkish government official recently said his country might consider pursuing a legal claim over two oil-rich northern Iraqi cities that once belonged to the Ottoman Empire. What could Ankara's possible motives be in reviving the issue as the United States prepares to possibly strike Baghdad? RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 4 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In comments published in the Istanbul-based "Hurriyet" daily on 6 January, Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said his country might pursue a legal claim over Kirkuk and Mosul, two oil-rich former Ottoman cities that were ceded to Iraq in the 1920s.

In the aftermath of World War I, the victorious Allies secured the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, confining it to Turkey's present boundaries. The treaty of Sevres in 1920, followed three years later by the treaty of Lausanne, confirmed Turkey's new borders, with the exception of that with Mesopotamia, as Iraq was then known, which was under British mandate.

In 1926, following months of arduous talks, the newly founded republic of Turkey reluctantly relinquished its territorial claims over the province that comprised Mosul and Kirkuk, which then became an Iraqi possession. Under a three-party agreement sealed in Ankara, Britain offered to compensate Turkey with a 10 percent share in Iraq's oil revenues over the next 25 years. Officially, Ankara later waived its share in return for a onetime payment of 500,000 pounds sterling.

In comments likely to please Turkish nationalists, who insist that Ankara was stripped of its rights at the time, Yakis said government experts are studying official documents to see whether Ankara can legally claim rights over Kirkuk and Mosul.

Baskin Oran teaches international relations at Ankara University. He told our correspondent that recent research conducted in government archives by Hikmet Ulugbay, a former state minister in charge on the economy, has shed new light on the 1926 agreement.

According to Oran, Ulugbay discovered in the 1990s that Iraq had, in fact, made some payments to Turkey until the early 1950s when Ankara, eager to boost ties with Baghdad, called off the oil deal. After the 1958 coup that toppled King Faisal II of Iraq, Turkey reversed its decision and restored a budget line for Iraq's fees. "In reaction to [the coup,] Turkey put this [item back] on its national budget again, and it [remained] there up until 1986. After 1986, we no longer see [any such budget line], because then-President [Turgut] Ozal, in an effort to [boost trade with Iraq], deleted the article altogether from the budget. So, all this has to be studied," Oran said.

Whether these findings could serve as a basis for Turkey to sustain its claim is unclear.

Some commentators have understood Yakis's remarks as an indication that Ankara may attempt to bargain its support for Washington's war plans in return for a stake in the oil wealth of Iraq, which has the second-largest proven reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia.

In an effort to defuse the controversy triggered by the minister's comments, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the chairman of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, denied on 28 January that Ankara covets Iraq's oil fields. "We are in favor of Iraq's territorial integrity. We do not want the Iraqi people to be denied their rights. The natural wealth [of Iraq] belongs to the Iraqi people," Erdogan said.

After the 1991 Gulf War, the United Nations decreed an oil-for-food program, under which Iraq was authorized to export a limited amount of crude oil to finance the purchase of humanitarian goods. Iraqi oil is reaching world markets mainly through a pipeline linking Kirkuk to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Two and a half years ago, the UN authorized the Turkish Petroleum Corporation to drill two dozens wells in the Kirkuk area under the oil-for-food program.

Turkey, which says the Gulf War has cost its economy up to $40 billion in lost revenues, has sought to restore trade ties with Iraq. Analysts believe a new regional conflict could cost Ankara up to $15 billion, but Turkish leaders maintain the loss of income could amount to nearly twice that figure.

Adding fuel to Ankara's concerns, both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which are helping the government eliminate the consequences of a recent financial crisis, have warned that compensation reportedly envisaged by the United States may be insufficient to avert further economic turmoil.

Although Ankara may have an economic interest in demanding a stake in Kirkuk and Mosul, which are among Iraq's largest oil-producing areas, regional experts believe that the prospects of industrial fallout are not the main Turkish concern.

Erich Jan Zurcher chairs the Turkish Studies Department at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He told our correspondent that, in his view, Yakis's remarks reflect Ankara's traditional security concerns rather than any possible economic ambitions. "The fact that these claims are now put on the table, or at least that references are made to them, purely [aims at] convincing the Americans that the territorial integrity of Iraq should be maintained and that there should be no option of a separate, or independent, Kurdistan in [northern Iraq]," Zurcher said.

Since the end of the Gulf War, two rival Kurdish factions -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- have been controlling most of Iraqi Kurdistan, with the notable exception of Kirkuk and Mosul.

Turkey has used its alternatively good ties with the PUK and the KDP to crush its own Kurdish separatist movement. For the past decade or so, the Turkish Army has been conducting cross-border operations into northern Iraq in pursuit of guerrilla fighters of the now officially defunct Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and has been maintaining some troops in northern Iraq.

In Ankara, both civilian and military leaders believe U.S.-led strikes against Baghdad could prompt Iraqi Kurds to proclaim their independence, thus reigniting separatism in Turkey's own Kurdish southeast. Turkey also fears that Washington may promise Iraqi Kurds some kind of national recognition in return for their participation in a war against Saddam Hussein's regime.

The United States is, in turn, reportedly seeking assurances from Turkey that it will not attempt to seize Kirkuk and Mosul to prevent the risk of a Kurdish state arising in northern Iraq. Turkish leaders have said that they might order troops into the area in the event of war, officially to protect the Turkic minority living there.

Known as Turkomans, this estimated 300,000-strong community is concentrated around Kirkuk. Once the predominant ethnic group in the area, the Turkomans consider Kirkuk their main city and have hinted in the past that they could attempt to set up an independent state should they feel threatened by Iraq's Arabs and Kurds. Iraqi Kurds, in turn, consider Kirkuk a historically Kurdish city.

Zurcher believes that Ankara may use its historical claims over Mosul and Kirkuk and that the presence of Turkomans there as a pretext to intervene in northern Iraq. But he said this remains a reserve option for the Turkish leadership. "I think this is a fallback option and an attempt to put pressure on the Americans. The preferred option for the Turkish government is to keep Iraq united. As long as that happens, Turkey will, I am sure, not put in any serious claims about the north of Iraq, even though there is a [Turkic] minority living in Kirkuk, precisely in the area where the oil is produced. If, in the course of any war, the Kurds of northern Iraq would claim independence, or would be allowed de facto or de jure independence on the part of the Americans, then this is certainly a second option. But it is a very difficult one, and the Turkish government, especially the Turkish armed forces, knows all the risks involved," Zurcher said.

Unexpected though they were, Yakis's recent remarks did not set a precedent. Many Turkish leaders have, in recent years, revived the territorial controversy with Baghdad.

In 1995, then-President Suleyman Demirel suggested that Iraq's northern boundary be revised so that Kirkuk and Mosul became parts of Turkey. Although Demirel eventually retracted, he failed to convince public opinion in Arab countries that Ankara had no views over its former Ottoman possessions. Yet, it seems that security concerns rather than neo-imperialistic ambitions prompted Demirel's remarks, which were made at a time when northern Iraq was serving as a rear base for some PKK fighters.

But Zurcher believes any Turkish move to annex Kirkuk and Mosul would turn into a nightmare for Ankara, if only because its volatile Kurdish community would then grow by an estimated 30 percent. "Turkey already has a problem with perhaps 10 [million] or 12 million Kurds, and to occupy the Kurdish parts of Iraq would add significantly to this problem. So any [economic] gain to be made from the occupation of the Kirkuk oil fields is offset by huge risks of internal instability," Zurcher said.

The Turkish parliament is due to debate this week on whether to authorize the deployment of U.S. troops on national territory, thus ending weeks of uncertainty about Ankara's support to Washington's war plans.

The Pentagon would like to open a northern front against Iraq to take the heat off a primary invasion from the Persian Gulf area. But there could be other reasons behind Washington's insistence on sending troops into Iraq from the north.

On 27 January, Western media quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying that such a move would allow the Pentagon to secure the Kirkuk and Mosul oil fields. Managing Iraq's hydrocarbon resources would reportedly help Washington funnel oil proceeds into rebuilding the country after Hussein is ousted.

Ankara University's Oran does not believe in the possibility of an independent Kurdistan emerging from the rubble of Hussein's regime. Nor does he think the United States will let Iraqi Kurds take control over Kirkuk and Mosul. "Even if there is an autonomous Kurdistan, the fact that the rest of Iraq [would] never be able to make a living without these oil fields makes it impossible that they will be given to [an] autonomous Kurdistan," Oran said.

Oran believes that, in all likelihood, Kirkuk and Mosul will remain under Baghdad's central control. But whether oil proceeds will be effectively used to reconstruct Iraq remains an open question, he added.

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