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Iraq: Kurds Under Scrutiny As Turkey, U.S. Negotiate Possible Troop Deployment

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey is coming under increasing pressure to contribute troops in Iraq as the United States seeks international help to stabilize the country. Ankara, in return, is demanding that American forces take action against Kurdish separatist rebels based in northern Iraq.

Prague, 10 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has reportedly asked its NATO ally Turkey to contribute some 10,000 soldiers for possible deployment in Iraq.

In comments made yesterday after talks with Iraqi tribal leaders, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Ankara would probably make up its mind on whether to meet Washington's request by the end of the month.

However, no firm commitment is expected before early October, when Turkish lawmakers return from summer recess. Any government request to send troops abroad must be approved by parliament.

In the meantime, American and Turkish officials will continue to negotiate the terms of Ankara's possible participation in U.S.-led security efforts in Iraq. Lynn Pascoe, a U.S. assistant deputy secretary of state, and Pentagon officials are expected in Ankara later this week for a new round of talks.

Gul last week said both sides have already agreed that Ankara would be assigned responsibility over a separate sector in Iraq and that its soldiers would not be placed under foreign command. He also said his country has been offered several options on where to deploy its troops and that it would be up to the Turkish Army's General Staff to decide the most appropriate location.

Addressing reporters in the Turkish capital on 3 September, the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Europe, General James Jones, said any Turkish contributions in Iraq would be much appreciated in Washington.

"Any help that can be given to the very important efforts ongoing in Iraq would be welcomed by the United States. This is something that is a bilateral issue between Turkey and the United States and with other countries, as well. And I think we're seeing an awful lot of discussion on that level and we just have to wait and see where that goes."

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in a quandary. It is confronted with widespread anti-American sentiment among Turks but is anxious to patch up ties with Washington after the diplomatic face-off that followed parliament's refusal to let the U.S. use Turkish territory as a springboard for the war on Iraq.

Results of an opinion poll published last week (5 September) in Ankara show that more than 64 percent of Turks remain opposed to sending soldiers to Iraq, even though nearly half of those surveyed believe Turkish troops could help bring stability there.

In an apparent bid to assuage critics that it is too compliant toward Washington, Erdogan's cabinet has hinted that it may trade its military support for a U.S. promise to move against Iraq-based militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Officially, both sides reject any explicit linkage. But Turkish government officials believe any sign that the U.S. is ready to address the PKK issue would help win over skeptical lawmakers.

Some 5,000 PKK peshmergas, or fighters, and their families are believed to be holed up in the Qandil Mountains that separate northern Iraq from Iran. They have been hiding there since imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan urged them to leave Turkey in 1999, following a 15-year military campaign against Ankara that claimed some 35,000 lives.

Turkey, which already has thousands of troops in northern Iraq, insists the PKK -- also known as the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK) -- remains a threat to its security and should be eliminated.

Ankara fears Washington's failure to stabilize Iraq could signal the end of the country's territorial integrity, prompt Iraqi Kurds to carve out a separate state, and re-ignite the war for Kurdish autonomy in eastern Anatolia.

Last month, Turkey's Parliament voted for a limited amnesty for PKK members, which the Kurdish leadership has denounced as a ploy. In addition, the Marxist group earlier this week (2 September) said it has called off the cease-fire it unilaterally declared in 1998. It has threatened to resume its armed campaign for autonomy unless Ankara agrees by the end of the year to explore ways of solving the Kurdish issue peacefully.

For the first time yesterday, Turkish officials acknowledged that the amnesty law has failed to entice PKK guerrillas down from the mountains.

Ankara has not elaborated on the demands it has put before the U.S. regarding the PKK. Some Turkish newspapers, however, believe the government and the military are pressing Washington to arrest Qandil-based Kurdish leaders as a precondition for sending troops to Iraq.

U.S. officials privately say Washington is committed to "eliminate the PKK threat from Iraq to Turkey." Officially, however, the Bush administration remains evasive on possible actions against the guerrillas.

On 2 September, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher fell short of detailing what steps American forces would consider taking against PKK activists based in northern Iraq.

"Our view remains the same: that there needs to be an end to the operation of any terrorist groups in northern Iraq. PKK is a terrorist group. We have taken responsibility -- the coalition has -- for security in that area. We have close liaison with the Turkish military and the Turkish government, and we will continue to operate in that fashion to ensure that [northern Iraq] is not used as a base for terrorism against Turkey. And any concerns that Turkey might have they can raise with us, and we will try to make sure that they are taken care of."

For many years, Turkey has relied on the two main Kurdish factions that control northern Iraq -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) -- to contain the PKK.

The PUK and the KDP, which have sided with coalition forces during the war, are considered Washington's best allies in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Some Turkish experts believe both groups could, as they have in the past, lend support to Ankara and condone any action aimed at cleansing their home region of PKK militants.

Other analysts caution against hasty conclusions, saying Ankara should not take the support of Iraqi Kurds for granted. Dogan Ozguden is the editor in chief of "Info-Turk," a Brussels-based electronic newsletter specializing in Kurdish affairs.

"Relations among Kurdish communities, between Turkey's Kurds and Iraq's Kurds, have always been fluctuating. Today, maybe, relations between the PKK and Iraq's two Kurdish factions [the PUK and the KDP] are not good. But everything may look different tomorrow depending on the situation and depending on the United States' stance."

Western military analysts say that, with its troops already overstretched across Iraq, the U.S. is unlikely to start immediate action against the PKK. They also say any hostile move against the Kurdish guerrillas might fuel further instability in the country and put American soldiers under greater risk.

Ozguden says any steps the U.S. might take in northern Iraq would depend on the situation in the rest of the country and on the balance of forces in Baghdad.

"Will the U.S., for the sake of securing Turkey's support or participation to their [Iraq policy], agree to meet Ankara's demands [regarding the PKK]? And if they do agree, will this agreement remain on paper only or will any [anti-PKK] operation be undertaken? There is a big question mark here," Ozguden said. "This is an issue that is linked to relations between the U.S. and other players in Iraq. The situation around Baghdad and other Iraqi regions will certainly influence [the U.S. decision]."

PKK-KADEK officials have not reacted to reports that Turkey is demanding U.S. action against them.

The guerrilla group, with which Ankara claims the U.S. held talks prior to waging war in Iraq, sees itself as a major player in the region. Media reports have said the organization is seeking dialogue with Washington on joining its campaign for democratization in the Middle East.

Some PKK militants believe that, despite their group's troubled history in northern Iraq, ethnic solidarity may prompt local Kurds to oppose a U.S. crackdown along the Iranian border.

Meanwhile, Turkey's Kurdish rebels last week secured the support of one faction of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council. In interviews with foreign media, the Governing Council's newly appointed foreign minister and KDP official, Hoshyar Zebari, said any troops sent to Iraq by neighboring nations would only add to security problems in the country.

Zebari's specific mention of Turkey among countries he accuses of nurturing secret ambitions over Iraq triggered public outcry in Ankara, which said it would seek clarification with Washington.

These comments came as an embarrassment for the U.S. and exposed the first cracks in Iraq's fledgling Governing Council.

Asked on 5 September how Washington could possibly convince Iraq's Kurdish parties -- which have five seats on the Governing Council -- to accept the deployment of Turkish troops, Boucher of the U.S. State Department evaded the question, saying the Bush administration is still expecting a statement expressing the collective view of the council's 25 members.

In apparent contradiction to Zebari's remarks, Entifadh Kanbar, a spokesman for the Governing Council's acting chairman, Ahmad Chalabi, yesterday said Turkish troops would be welcomed in Iraq, provided they have a mandate from the United Nations and would be deployed far from Kurdish lands.

Kanbar also said Chalabi will visit Ankara in the coming days to discuss the issue of troops with Turkish officials.

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