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Iraq Report: July 21, 2006

July 21, 2006, Volume 9, Number 26

TURKEY THREATENS MILITARY INCURSION INTO IRAQ. Turkey has said it was taking steps this week to prepare for a cross-border incursion into northern Iraq to hunt down Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters holed up in the Qandil Mountain range. The announcement came following a series of PKK attacks on Turkish troops in recent days that left more than a dozen soldiers dead.

The Turkish General Staff was asked to plan and prepare for a possible cross-border operation following antiterrorism board and ministerial council meetings earlier this week. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed on July 19 that preparations are under way, telling reporters in Ankara: "Authorized institutions and security forces are proceeding with their work. Whatever step needs to be taken will be taken according to the study."

Change In U.S. Stance?

Turkey has tried on several occasions in recent months to pressure the United States and Iraqi governments to take action against the PKK. The latest attempt appears to be based on an assumption that the U.S. position regarding cross-border operations has changed.

A "strategic vision" document signed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul in Washington on July 5 stressed the U.S.'s continued commitment to eradicating the PKK, which it considers a terrorist organization.

"We will work very actively with Turkey and also with the new Iraqi government to deal with this problem because, as I have said before and as I said when I was in Turkey, no one wants the PKK to be able to operate, to carry out terrorist attacks against Turkey anywhere, but most especially from northern Iraq," Rice told reporters after their meeting. However, it appears Rice meant diplomatically, not militarily.

The United States maintains that any Turkish military operation could destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan. U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Ross Wilson told Turkey's NTV television on July 17 that the United States would oppose any unilateral action on Turkey's part.

'Iraq Is Not Lebanon'

Wilson denied that the U.S. position reflected a double standard because of its support for Israel's attack on Hizballah positions in southern Lebanon, saying that Israel's circumstances were different. "Turkey has an ally in Iraq. Israel does not have such an opportunity. Besides, [the] PKK is not only in the north of Iraq, it is in Europe and in Turkey. Entering the north of Iraq will not resolve the problem," Anatolia quoted Wilson as telling the news channel. The ambassador's remarks were widely criticized in the Turkish press.

The U.S. Embassy clarified Wilson's remarks in a July 19 statement posted to its website, saying the ambassador's remarks had been misinterpreted in the Turkish media. "Of course, Turkey, like every country, has a right and an obligation to defend itself and its people. For over 50 years, we have stood together as members of an alliance dedicated to collective defense and security.... Working together with the United States and the government of Iraq can be an essential part of advancing Turkish security.

"We look forward to continued close cooperation with Turkey and with the government of Prime Minister Erdogan as our countries address together the threat posed by the PKK and the other security challenges we face," the statement read.

Turkey Looks For Support

Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ali Tuygan summoned the U.S. and Iraqi ambassadors to a July 17 meeting in Ankara and told them to take action against the PKK or else Turkey would.

Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said the parties involved must understand Turkey's resolve in destroying the PKK, which it considers a terrorist group, and that Turkey "will take the appropriate steps decisively and with firmness" to carry out that goal. "We expect support, sincerity, and cooperation from all governments which acknowledged that [the] PKK is a terrorist organization," he noted, referring to the United States and Iraq, Anatolia news agency reported on July 17.

Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has been trying to drum up European support for a Turkish incursion. He raised the issue with U.K. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett in London on July 18. Gul told reporters following the meeting that he called for international support against the PKK.

Gul later contended in an interview with the "Financial Times" published on July 20 that the PKK has armed itself with remote-controlled explosives and weapons obtained in Iraq, including from the Iraqi army. "We cannot tolerate this. Definitely we will use all our rights under international law," he said.

Regarding past statements by Iraqi officials that any Turkish military operation would potentially destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan, Gul said: "Of course, we understand the Iraqi government's position, but if they are not able to control their land, they should not hesitate to cooperate with us. If they cannot stop it, we will have to take action."

Gul also told the "Financial Times" that hesitation over letting Turkey join the EU, coupled with U.S. policies in the Middle East, are triggering an anti-Western backlash in Turkey.

Turkey Least Of Iraq's Concerns

Iraqi officials have said little publicly about the threatened incursion. Given the problems faced by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's administration in Baghdad, the timing could not be worse. Security continues to deteriorate, and reports this week by the UN and Iraqi Migration and Displacement Ministry indicate that some 6,000 nationals have been killed in the past two months, and an equal number wounded, while some 32,000 have been displaced in the past three weeks. The ministry estimates that 162,000 Iraqis have been internally displaced over the past five months.

The escalation in regional tensions brought on by the Israeli attacks on Hizballah in Lebanon have further occupied Baghdad, as it considers the ramifications of a broader regional conflict should Israel take action against Hizballah sponsors Iran and Syria.

Kurdish leader and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani issued a strong warning to Turkey on July 13, saying that previous agreements signed between Saddam Hussein and the Turkish government regarding permission for Turkey to carry out cross-border operations were no longer valid.

Referring to Turkey and Iran, who have been carrying out operations against Kurdish fighters along the Iraqi border for several weeks, Talabani said: "The central government in [Baghdad has] conveyed its uneasiness on the issue to the two countries via their embassies. The government has warned the two countries." U.S. officials have also cautioned against any Turkish-Iranian incursion into Iraq, according to Turkish media reports.

Meanwhile, Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told reporters on July 19 that the PKK was an internal Turkish issue and the Kurdistan government had not given safe-haven to the PKK. For Barzani, any instability in his region's relations with Turkey would cost both sides economically.

And this may be the only area where Turkey has leverage. If it succeeds in convincing Iraq's Kurdish leaders that the region will suffer financially, there may be some Kurdish movement on the issue. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on July 21.)

IRAQIS SEE ISRAEL-LEBANON CONFLICT THROUGH DOMESTIC LENS. While Iraqis have expressed concern over events taking place in Lebanon, much of their focus this week remained on the deteriorating security situation in their own country. According to a UN report released on July 18, some 6,000 Iraqis were killed in May and June, the majority in violent attacks in Baghdad and central regions of the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19, 2006).

Residents in the capital have said that even the oppressive heat, with temperatures hovering around 47 degrees Celsius, with one hour of electricity on and five off, is not their main concern. Their concern is avoiding being caught up in the escalating sectarian conflict.

Baghdad residents told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on July 18 that they do worry about the Israel-Lebanon conflict spreading across the region. A number of people compared the decision by Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah to Saddam Hussein's dragging Iraq into conflicts with neighboring Iran and Kuwait. Lebanon is now paying for the actions of one man, who pursued his own goals without taking consideration for the country's people or government, they said.

One interviewee blamed the "Arab mentality" for the escalation, saying Arabs like to make heroes for themselves, while their dictator leads them like sheep.

Another man, who described himself as a Hizballah sympathizer, said that although he admires the movement for fighting Israel, it has taken on a battle it can't win. The conflict with Israel will destroy the Lebanese people as Saddam Hussein destroyed Iraq, he predicted.

Iraqi Officials Condemn Israel, Comment Little On Neighbors

Several leading Iraqi officials have condemned what they termed Israeli aggression against Lebanon. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki denounced the Israeli air strikes on July 15. The same day, Iraq's parliament unanimously condemned the Israeli offensive. Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi condemned the Israeli operations on July 16, calling them "unacceptable and despicable."

President Jalal Talabani told reporters in Al-Sulaymaniyah on July 18 that "flagrant aggressions" are being carried out against the Lebanese people. "We support the Lebanese people led by their government and we condemn this aggression...this war is indeed a filthy war."

Talabani declined to comment on possible Iranian and Syrian involvement in the current crisis, telling reporters: "I [will] keep all my observations about both neighbors in my heart. God willing, in my meeting with them I will discuss" the issue.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on July 19 that Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on June 15 agreed that the current escalation "is the prelude for more dangers and confrontations in the regional situation and the nuclear dossier."

Asked to elaborate, Zebari said: "There is Israeli provocation and if [we] put things in perspective it becomes obvious that the Palestinian-Israeli crisis happened just as the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government were on the verge of agreement. It is same with the Hizballah operation. It came before the G8 [Group of Eight leading industrialized countries] meeting and its discussion of the Iranian nuclear dossier. There are therefore new alliances in the region and the problem is that the Arab countries have stopped having control of the region's fateful issues."

Shi'a, Sunnis Weigh In

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called the Israeli military offensive against Hizballah a "flagrant aggression," and called for international intervention to end the conflict in a statement posted to his website on July 17. "This outrageous oppression is taking place under the watch of the entire world, which is turning a blind eye," the statement said.

Al-Sistani also called on foreign states to secure humanitarian aid for the wounded and displaced. "The representatives of the religious authority in Lebanon and believers in general should do their utmost in this regard," the statement said.

In an apparent comment on U.S. policy, he added: "The grievances of the peoples in the region, including the Lebanese people, would increase the peoples' feeling of resentment and anger at the international policies that approve of what is taking place or turn a blind eye to it. This will consequently step up tension and violence and impede the achievement of security and peace in the entire region."

Sunni insurgent groups active in Iraq also voiced support for Palestinians and Lebanese through statements posted to the Internet. The Islamic Resistance Movement in Iraq -- 1920 Revolution Brigades praised the "Lebanese resistance" in a July 13 statement for "standing up against Zionist occupation." The group pledged its support to the Palestinian and Lebanese people, and called on "all the jihad groups in Iraq to intensify their jihad operation, strengthen and toughen it, in spite of the American and British occupation, in support of our brothers in Palestine and Lebanon."

The Iraqi Ba'ath Party called on the Arab masses and "all influential powers to unite in the combat arena and take a fundamental stand alongside the Lebanese people" in a July 16 Internet statement. The statement said Iraq and Palestine were the first fronts in the campaign by "the Zionist entity" to stop any attempt at an Arab reemergence project.

Too Much To Do At Home

There is little doubt that Iraqis fear the eruption of a broader regional conflict, but many see the current devastation at home as taking precedence over regional affairs. Some Iraqis subscribe to the rationale that a broader regional conflict could actually benefit Iraq, since it would likely prompt foreign fighters to relocate to neighboring states, thereby alleviating some of the conflict at home.

Of course, this is a simplistic view, as any escalation in regional tensions would have devastating consequences for Iraq. Regional instability would disrupt supply lines for trade, further inhibiting the import of much needed food, medicine, and goods, as well as the export of oil, the country's only significant source of revenue.

The geographical location of Iraq, wedged between Iran and Syria, would make it vulnerable to any fighting between those two states and Israel. In addition, it is possible that Iran and Syria, whose interference has been one of the leading causes of instability in Iraq over the past three years, would take advantage of that geographical proximity to use Iraq as a conduit for the movement of fighters and weapons.

Moreover, there is a possibility that neighboring states would take further advantage of any regional conflict to achieve their goals inside Iraq. Turkey, for one, has renewed its threat of invasion in recent days, saying it will take action against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters hiding in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said his country will launch an incursion into Iraq unless the Iraqi government and the United States take concrete steps to wipe out the PKK, the Anatolia news agency reported on July 17. Cicek said the parties involved must understand Turkey's resolve in destroying the PKK, which it considers a terrorist group, adding that Turkey "will take appropriate steps decisively and with firmness" to achieve that goal.

"We expect support, sincerity, and cooperation from all governments that acknowledge that the PKK is a terrorist organization," he noted, referring to the United States and Iraq. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on July 19.)