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Iraq Report: April 28, 2006

28 April 2006, Volume 9, Number 17

TURKEY URGED TO SEEK BAGHDAD'S HELP ON KURDISH MILITANTS. Despite Turkey's suspicion of the largely autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq, Iraq's Kurds could play a positive role in improving Ankara's relations with its own Kurdish minority.

As Turkey masses troops on its border with Iraq in preparation for a possible large-scale military incursion to eliminate Turkish-Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) hiding out in Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul in Ankara on April 25.

Despite weeks of press reports suggesting that the United States has given tacit approval for a Turkish military operation, Rice maintained in remarks to reporters that any such action could threaten to destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan.

"We need to work with the new Iraqi government and we will do that. We've had a trilateral mechanism on this issue and I hope that we can reinvigorate it when there is a new Iraqi government" in place," Rice said.

Meanwhile, Gul quietly criticized the U.S. approach to terrorism. "Taking one [terrorist] organization more seriously while showing greater tolerance to another creates a weakness in the field of counterterrorism and in the international arena," he told reporters. Both the United States and Turkey have labeled the PKK a terrorist organization.

But Gul denied that any operation is in the works, saying that the troop buildup is an annual spring exercise by Turkish forces.

"Our security forces are taking measures because with the arrival of spring the terrorists have become active and are infiltrating our borders," he said. "This is what is being done, and there is nothing new."

U.S. Offers Intelligence

Rice confirmed to reporters in Ankara on April 25 that the United States has stepped up its cooperation with regard to the PKK by sharing intelligence information with Turkey. "We believe that it is important that we make joint efforts through information sharing and other means to prevent any vacuum for being used as a way to inflict harm here in Turkey," she said, according to the State Department website.

Istanbul-based NTV reported on April 21 that the United States was providing Turkey with "pinpoint" intelligence, adding that all of the PKK's communications have been placed under observation. The United States is also reportedly working with Turkey to cut off the PKK's financial support.

Meanwhile, some Turkish media have maintained that the United States has given Turkey the green light to carry out reconnaissance missions inside Iraq.

The Turkish media has fueled rumors in recent days about preparations for a large-scale operation. Istanbul's "Ortadogu" reported on April 23 that the Turkish armed forces deployed two brigades to the Iraqi border in preparation for the operation, which would include air strikes against six PKK camps in the Qandil Mountains sheltering an estimated 6,000 militants.

The report contended that Iran and Syria were briefed on the operation, which planned to extend some 100 kilometers inside Iraq, and both countries gave their support. Iran has been carrying out its own operations against Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Free Life Party, an offshoot of the PKK, along the Iran-Iraq border in recent weeks. Both Iran and Syria have large Kurdish minority populations.

Iraq's Kurds Criticize Turkey

Iraq's Kurdish leaders have been critical of Turkish behavior in recent months, and have raised speculation that Turkey aims to destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan.

Relations between Ankara and Kurdistan had been tense since the overthrow of the Hussein regime, particularly because of Turkish support for Iraq's Turkoman population and its claims over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

The tensions were exacerbated when transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari visited Ankara without notifying President Jalal Talabani or Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (both Kurds) in February. Kurds interpreted the visit as a threat by al-Ja'fari, following their calls for him to give up the nomination to the premiership due to his poor performance in the transitional government.

More recently, Kurds have taken offense to the fact that Ankara has not included Kurdish leaders in the dialogue on the PKK issue, but rather sought exclusive talks with the United States, according to some media reports. This stance is more broadly linked to a Kurdish demand that Ankara recognize the legitimacy of the regional government in Kurdistan.

But, the Turkish-Kurdish division has much more to do with Turkey's relations with its minority Kurdish population than with the Kurdistan region in Iraq.

Attacks on Turkish cities attributed to the PKK or its splinter groups have risen dramatically in the past year, with at least eight bombings since January. For Turkey, the PKK is not only an obstacle to EU accession, but to democratic advances in the country. According to on April 21, the Turkish-Kurdish divide is widening, and nationalist sentiment is on the rise. In some areas of the country, campaigns are under way to encourage businesses not to employ Kurds, the website reported.

Turkey's handling of its Kurdish population has continued to raise questions from local and international observers. According to an April 26 report on, some 55 minors remain in custody inside a Diyarbakir prison after being arrested for their alleged involvement in a wave of protests in the city earlier this year. More than 200 minors were initially arrested but most of them have been released. The Diyarbakir Bar Association's Children's Right Center has threatened to take Turkey to the European Court of Human Rights if the children are not released, the website reported.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized Turkey for detaining one of its researchers in southeastern Turkey in early April, saying the researcher was detained, though not charged, and faced deportation after investigating alleged abuses by the Turkish police and government-armed local defense units. "The desire [by Turkey] to cover up human rights abuses is evidently still very strong despite recent moves towards more accountability in Turkey's bid for membership in the European Union," HRW said in an April 12 press release.

A Missed Opportunity?

Iraq's Kurdish leaders could play a key role in ameliorating Turkey's relations with its own Kurdish population. And it is likely that Iraq's Kurdish leaders would welcome the opportunity. Such a request from Ankara would signal its recognition of the positive role that can be played by Kurdistan's regional government.

Moreover, it is in the interests of Iraq's Kurdish leaders to maintain solid relations with their northern neighbor, in order to reinforce stability in the region and boost the region's economic development.

Turkey has always expressed the concern that Iraq's Kurdistan government would spur calls at home for greater Kurdish autonomy. But Iraq could also play a mediating role between Turkey and its Kurdish population. It could be to Turkey's benefit to recognize what Iraq's Kurds could bring to the table through such dialogue. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on April 27.)

KURDISH OFFICIAL DISCUSSES RELATIONS WITH TURKEY. RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo on April 26 interviewed Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) International Relations Director Saffin Dizay, who spoke by telephone from Salah Al-Din. Dizay discusses a wide range of matters relating to Iraq's relations with Turkey and said that Iraq's Kurdish leaders would be willing to play a role in helping find a peaceful solution to Turkey's "Kurdish problem."

RFE/RL: There has been a large Turkish military buildup along the Iraqi border in recent weeks. Turkish media have speculated that the buildup was in preparation for a major operation against the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) in Iraq. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said during U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Turkey on April 25 that no such operation is planned, but many are still wondering about the status of Turkish forces on the border with Iraq.

Saffin Dizay: I think it's very natural for Madame Rice to visit Turkey. Turkey is, of course, an ally of the United States and it is a NATO member country, and before [that] she visited Greece. So, we do not read much between the lines about the visit. There have been similar visits by Dr. Rice and other senior officials of the U.S. government to Turkey.

As far as the Turkish military buildup, of course it's within the boundaries of Turkey and it cannot spread or spillover into Iraqi Kurdistan's territory. And we think and hope that it will remain as such, because we have seen similar buildups in previous years.... Every spring there have been troops built up after the winter conditions, and there have been times in the past [when there were] cross-border operations. But of course today Iraq is a sovereign country. Iraq has regained its sovereignty and the agreement that existed before between Baghdad and Ankara on the hot pursuit by the Turkish military into Iraqi territory is no longer valid. We do not think that such operations are intended in any case.

RFE/RL: When Rice was in Ankara she called for a reactivation of the trilateral mechanism between Iraq, Turkey, and the United States with regard to the PKK. Have Iraqi Kurdish officials heard anything from Turkey with regard to these talks?

Dizay: No, there hasn't been any direct approach from Ankara, although toward the end of last year, there were some contacts and some positive messages that Turkey is willing to resolve this problem through [talks] -- not necessarily the issue related to the PKK, but the overall problem [related] to the Kurdish issue.

Of course, we have always welcomed a peaceful, democratic solution to any problem. We believe that a military solution is not the answer. As far as dialogue with Ankara, we've never had a problem with dialogue. Although since regime change in Iraq there has been less contact with Ankara due to having an active and legitimate [national] government in Baghdad, an active Foreign Ministry in Baghdad.... Nevertheless, we are ready to talk to Ankara on a bilateral level in Kurdistan within the KDP scope or within the Kurdistan Regional Government scope...especially on economic, social, and cultural developments. We enjoy very good [relations]. This process has been developed a great deal. Turkish firms are very much engaged in Kurdistan. Most of the construction work, the tenders have been given to Turkish companies. So we don't have any problems in that field.

On the political level, we have always welcomed contact and for the last 15 years, since 1991, we have been dealing with Ankara openly. We know the people in Ankara, [and] they know us well. We do not want third parties to help us to regain such contacts. I think direct contacts is helpful, and we welcome direct contacts.

In fact, most of the political faces in Baghdad are very new to Turkey, [while Iraqi] Kurdish leaders are familiar to Turkey. We have tried, and we can help Turkey -- and other neighbors for that matter. Kurdish leaders are very well known to the Iranians, to the Syrians.... So we can be a bridge between these countries and the future Iraq. And the fact that we have high-level representation in the Iraqi government from the president downward, that should be a blessing and it could be a gain for all [Iraq's] neighbors to have these people in Baghdad.

RFE/RL: When outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari was in Turkey earlier this year, what kind of impact did that have on relations between Iraq's Kurdish leaders and Ankara?

Dizay: Obviously, the former prime minister's visit to was not of much concern what he would discuss with the Turks. Very rightly, as prime minister of Iraq, he would discuss issues related to bilateral ties with Turkey, as well as issues related to Iraq and the present situation. But the concern was [more] about the legality of the visit, that he was a caretaker prime minister and such visits...had no legal base to enter into dialogue or even to sign agreements with neighbors. That was the only concern that was raised.

We have been dealing with Ankara much longer than Prime Minister al-Ja'fari or any other Iraqi leadership, so we don't have any concern about what is being discussed.... The concern was not so much the agenda, but the timing of the visit because we were on the verge of forming a new government in Baghdad and the legal basis for his visit was at question.

RFE/RL: Do you think that the KDP could play a mediating role between the PKK and Turkey?

Dizay: It's not so much playing a mediating role between the PKK and Turkey. Turkey has to be ready and Turkey has to declare how she wants to resolve this problem. We do not want to interfere in the internal affairs of Turkey, [just as] we do not want to see Turkey or other neighbors interfere in the affairs of Kurdistan or Iraq as a whole. But obviously if Turkey wants to approach this issue to solve this once and for all through, hopefully, peaceful means [and] not military measures, if our assistance is required, we will certainly consider contributing to it. But that will have to come from Turkey -- what role we can play -- rather than for us to impose our position.

RFE/RL: If Turkey asked the KDP to mediate, do you think the response from the PKK would be positive?

Dizay: Do not [relate] the whole Kurdish problem in Turkey to the PKK. This issue [between Turkey and its Kurdish population] was there before the PKK, and it will be there after the PKK. We believe there is an issue and even Prime Minister [Recep Tayyib] Erdogan himself not long ago in Diyarbakir declared that there is a problem called "the Kurdish problem." So if that issue has been accepted by the Turkish state, then you have to seek a solution for it. If we [in Iraq] feel that we can be part of that solution or we can help with a solution, we will do so.

RFE/RL: What is the status of Turkish forces inside [Iraqi] Kurdistan. We know that there are Turkish troops stationed in Kurdistan, for example, in Bamarni.

Dizay: As you know since 1992 there was a good deal of cooperation and understanding on security issues and through the mid-1990s -- 1996, 1997 -- the presence of about 1,000 or so troops in Bamarni remains to be there. And we didn't have problems with them and they keep a low profile. And whenever [there will be] a need for them to leave, or whenever the federal government asks foreign troops to leave, I'm sure the Turkish side will leave.... We don't have any problem with them, to be fair.

RFE/RL: When the Turkish forces that are stationed in Iraqi Kurdistan go off their base on operations, is there an agreement in place that they must obtain the permission of the KDP?

Dizay: No, they are there on the base and they are not conducting any operations. They are not [there] in an operational capacity.

RFE/RL: What can you tell us about Turkish-Kurdish human rights activist Leyla Zana's visit to Iraqi Kurdistan this week?

Dizay: This visit was postponed several times. She had requested to visit Kurdistan and to meet with [regional] President [Mas'ud] Barzani and with [Iraqi] President [Jalal] Talabani, but because of the hectic agenda in Baghdad -- both men were in Baghdad until very recently -- and once this time was available to have an audience with President Barzani, she arrived. And she held a meeting [with him] yesterday.

I was asked by Turkish media about her visit while there is a Turkish military buildup [on the border]. Her visit under no circumstances has any bearing [on] the troop buildup [and] it's not [related] to the troop buildup of the last 10 days or two weeks. She's been planning to visit Kurdistan for the last couple of months.

AL-MALIKI MUST QUELL DOUBTS ABOUT HIS APPROACH TO MILITIAS. The background of Iraq's prime minister-designate, Jawad al-Maliki, leaves many wondering whether he will be willing to rein in rogue elements in the security forces.

The Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance nominated Nuri Kamil al-Maliki -- better known by his nom de guerre Jawad al-Maliki -- as its new candidate for prime minister on April 22, hours before the parliament convened to elect the president, parliament speaker, and their deputies.

Al-Maliki, a high-ranking official in the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, was a close aide to outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari. The two men share many similarities, but, according to many who know him, al-Maliki is a tough pragmatist who can get the job done.

An Opponent Of Saddam Hussein

Just three years apart in age, both men were born in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala. Like al-Ja'fari, al-Maliki was a staunch opponent of Saddam Hussein. Also like al-Ja'fari, he fled to Iran during a Ba'athist crackdown on insurgents.

Al-Maliki eventually made his way to Syria, where he continued his activities in the Al-Da'wah Party, issuing a magazine, "Al-Mawqif" (The Attitude), that supported his party's political goals.

Though many view him as having conservative Shi'ite values, some say he does not possess strong sectarian tendencies. "Al-Maliki really is a man distinguished by his modesty," Ra'd al-Kharsan, an Al-Da'wah Party official in Al-Najaf, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on April 22. "He is devoted to and arduous in his work."

Sunnis Still Unconvinced

Still, al-Maliki's political background and recent statements have raised some concerns among Sunni Arabs. He told reporters at an April 22 press briefing that the incoming government would take steps to integrate Iraqi militias into the armed forces.

"Law No. 91 will take care of integrating [militias] into the armed forces according to rules that do not diminish the rights of those who struggled against the dictatorship," said al-Maliki, adding that 11 militias affiliated with parties and political forces are named in the law, which was drafted by the Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2004.

For Sunnis who contend they were victimized at the hands of Shi'ite militiamen, some of whom were tied to Interior Ministry security forces, the idea of merging more militiamen into the military is unacceptable.

Al-Maliki "announced that he will merge militias with the security forces instead of bringing those who committed crimes and atrocities to justice," said Muslim Scholars Association member Muhammad Bashar Amin, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on April 24. "Thousands of Iraqis have been killed by those militias."

Lingering Doubts

While the Al-Da'wah Party does not operate a militia in Iraq, al-Maliki is the former head of the party's jihad office, which functioned as the military wing of the party against Iraq's Ba'athist regime, leaving many wondering whether his administration would rein in rogue elements now operating within the Interior Ministry's security forces.

It is also unclear whether al-Maliki will be able to hold a national-unity government together. Some Sunni leaders reportedly objected to al-Maliki's nomination, claiming he was too sectarian. They later voiced support for him in exchange for Shi'ite support for their nomination of Mahmud al-Mashhadani, whom Shi'a view as a hard-line Islamist, to the post of parliament speaker.

Al-Maliki told reporters on April 22 that his government will not be formed along ethnic, sectarian, or party lines.

"Those who will join the new government should realize that they are ministers of the people and the homeland, and not the party. Second, ministers should have great efficiency, sincerity, and honesty in order to work as part of a team that will confront the developments and challenges" of the government, " al-Maliki said.

Iraqis will see if he is a man of his word when the cabinet is announced, sometime in the next 30 days. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on April 25.)

PROFILE: NURI AL-MALIKI. Nuri Kamil al-Maliki (Jawad al-Maliki is a nom de guerre) was born in 1950 in the Twayrij al-Hindiyah district of Karbala.

Commonly known as Abu Isra, al-Maliki joined the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party in 1968.

He holds an M.A. in Koran and Arabic Language Studies from Salah Al-Din University in Irbil.

Following a crackdown on outlawed parties by the regime of Saddam Hussein, al-Maliki fled the country in 1980, seeking asylum first in Iran and later in Syria.

While in Syria, he also published a magazine -- "Al-Mawqif" (The Attitude) -- that became the mouthpiece of the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party.

For several years, al-Maliki served as the head of jihad and military operations for the party, subsequently becoming a member of its political bureau.

Following the liberation of Iraq, he served as deputy director of the de-Ba'athification commission established by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

In 2004, al-Maliki was elected deputy speaker of the interim National Assembly.

He played a leading role in settling the August 2004 crisis in Al-Najaf when supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr battled coalition forces for three weeks.

In 2005, he served as chairman of the transitional National Assembly's Security and Defense Committee. He was also a member of the committee responsible for drafting Iraq's new constitution.

He has also served as a spokesman for transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari and as spokesman for the United Iraqi Alliance.