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Iraq Report: February 19, 1999

19 February 1999, Volume 2, Number 7

TURKEY, IRAQ AGREE TO CONTINUE BILATERAL TIES. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit announced that Iraqi Deputy Premier Tariq Aziz was coming to Turkey on 15 February to review economic relations between the two countries and to discuss the possibility of Turkish help in getting the international embargo imposed on Iraq eased, if not lifted.

According to the London-based newspaper "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat" on 11 February, Aziz also planned to discuss an Iraqi proposal to open a new trade passage between Turkey and Iraq in addition to the Al-Khabur crossing. Turkish officials believe that the new crossing is intended to replace Al-Khabur, which is under the control of Mas'ud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and which is a major source of Kurdish income.

Another issue was probably Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan's threat against the Incirlik Air Base, which is jointly manned by both the Turkish and American air forces and is used to launch American and British patrols of the northern no-fly zone.

Prior to the Ecevit-Aziz meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem placed the forthcoming meeting in the proper context. He emphasized that Ankara's relations with the Arab and Islamic worlds had greatly improved over the last 18 months. According to Cem, "our relations with Iran are improving favorably ... Our volume of trade with Egypt is about $1.5 billion. Our volume of trade with Algeria will be $2 billion by the year 2000." He added that "the initiatives we have launched contributed to improving Turkey's relations with all Arab countries except Iraq." He expressed the hope that the dialogue between Ecevit and Aziz will also lead to an improvement of relations, Anatolia reported on14 February.

The meeting itself lasted for three hours. The sessions were dominated by Turkey. According to a report on Istanbul's NTV television on 15 February, Turkey issued a number of warnings and made some recommendations. First, the Turkish side asked Iraq to abide by the UN Security Council resolutions "to the letter." Second, Turkey asked Iraq to refrain from open confrontations with the U.S.; it asked Iraq to give up its policy of non-recognition of the no-fly zones in the north and south of the country. And third, it also warned Iraq not to give a safe haven to PKK terrorists, as had been rumored after the PKK was forced to leave Syria under Turkish pressure. Ankara also asked Baghdad to "take steps toward democratization." According to the analyst on NTV, "Ankara believes by ignoring the various ethnic groups in Iraq, the Baghdad regime may start Iraq on the course of division ... [and] Turkey is one of the main countries that would be hurt by such a division."

On leaving, Aziz suggested that it was a respectful and open meeting. He also said that if outside intervention is eliminated, the two countries may reach a better point in solving their bilateral problems. And he claimed that both Iraq's security and Turkey's security were interlinked in the same way that the prosperity of the two countries are mutually and directly interlinked.

With regard to the concerns raised by Turkey, Aziz raised the "aggressive policy followed by the United States toward Iraq" and stressed that the "imposition of the no-fly zones by the United States and Britain are illegitimate and conflicts with the international will," INA reported on 15 February.

Topics which were supposed to be raised by the Turks in their talks with Aziz, such as the oil transported to Turkey through northern Iraq and Turkey's alliance with Israel, were not mentioned in the initial summaries of the talks. In an interview with Ismail Cem conducted by Ilnur Cevik and Huseyn Bagci (TDN, 15 February), Cem mentioned that the question of oil is being handled by the Energy Ministry. He also pointed out that the relationship between Israel and Turkey was the issue raised most often in Turkey's dealings with the Arab world. He explained that the alliance consisted of agreements on reciprocal military training and on the development of weapons industries, adding that "Turkey has in the past made 18 similar agreements with other countries and eleven of these are members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Since this alliance, which is often a feature of Iraqi propaganda directed against Turkey, the meeting between Aziz and Ecevit may have been as "frank and objective" as INA described it on 15 February.

Aziz, in an Ankara press conference the next day, summarized his thoughts on the meeting and Turkey's motivation for having it. He said that Turkey is the second victim of the sanctions after Iraq and that it had suffered losses amounting to $35 billion. He added that "this fact must make Turkey do its best to lift these sanctions. Turkey has an interest in improving its economic ties with Iraq, especially in cross-border trade. As far as his own objectives in his visit to Turkey, he said "we always exchange visits. Iraq and Turkey are neighbors and we have common interests," according to Iraq Radio Network on 16 February. (David Nissman)

IRAQ STILL THREATENING KUWAIT, SAUDI ARABIA. Iraqi Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan has claimed once again that Iraq is capable of attacking the Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian bases used by the American and British air forces to patrol Iraq's no-fly zones. With regard to Turkey's Incirlik air base, he said that Iraq was also prepared to attack it, but added that "the Turks have at least agreed to hold a dialogue with Iraq." (Voice of the South, 15 February: the Voice of the South is the radio of the Israel-created South Lebanese Army).

This new round of Iraqi threats began on 14 February after a Baghdad meeting of the Revolution Command Council, chaired by Saddam Husseyn. The next day, a British Ministry of Defence spokesman said that the threats against British forces in Turkey were "the actions of a damaged and isolated dictator with a bankrupt strategy," according to a report by the London Press Association on 15 February.

The Saudi newspaper "Al-Riyadh" pointed out that Saddam Husseyn is incapable of carrying out his threat, because if Saddam possessed the means to wound one U.S. or British soldier, he would have done so without bothering to issue warnings. According to the Press Association report, a Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry spokesman said the threats reflected the Baghdad regimes hostile intentions towards its neighbors.

The current chairman of the Gulf Cooperation Council, UAE Foreign Minister Rashid Abdalla Al-Nu'aymi, said that the threats were totally unacceptable.

In an exclusive interview granted to Radio Monte Carlo on 16 February, Ramadan repeated his threats. Asked whether he had taken the possible reactions into account if Iraq commits such actions, Ramadan answered: "A person who wishes to defend his existence and sovereignty must take everything into account. If there is a threat of continued aggression, we wish to note that the aggression is continuing anyway." (David Nissman)

BAGHDAD CONTINUES ETHNIC CLEANSING IN KURDISTAN. Baghdad's current wave of ethnic cleansing has included the renaming of regions to stress their Arab rather than non-Arab connections, the designation of various regions as military and security zones from which groups can be expelled by the authorities, and the mining of particular regions in order to restrict transit and prevent the return of those removed from their traditional residence. This process, described earlier in "RFE/RL Iraq Report" from 11 December 1998, is continuing.

According to Radio Free Iraq's correspondent in Kurdistan on 7 February, 19 Kurdish families were evicted from Kirkuk last month, and 20 more families were evicted in the past few days. Agricultural lands and shops that had belonged to the Kurds are being distributed to the new local residents, mostly Arab tribes that are being resettled in place of the former residents.

The Insurance Office of the ruling Ba'th Party reportedly has informed another 159 families to get ready to leave. This was announced by a government official on 7 February and printed in a Sulaymaniyah newspaper on the same day.

The government official noted that 394 Kurdish families that had been forcibly expelled from their original dwellings had been received in Sulaymaniyah last year. One of the residents who had been forcibly evicted said that local authorities gather those who are about to be expelled and give them nine documents that they are forced to sign. The documents say that they are moving voluntarily and that they thank the local authorities for their help. (David Nissman)

BA'TH REGIME AND THE CHALDEAN ASSYRIANS. An article in the December 1998 issue of the Assyrian journal "Al-Muntada" highlights the repressive activity of the current Ba'thist regime in Iraq directed toward the Assyrian and Chaldean communities.

Its author, Ghassan Hanna, points out that as a result of Ba'thist policies, "every non-Arab ethnic group of Iraq had its share of attempts to deny, suppress, extinguish through forceful assimilation, or simple physical extinction, if all the above failed. Kurds, Assyrians, Turkomans, and Yezidis have all shared one way or the other those Ba'thi policies of Arab nationalism."

He enumerates Baghdad's policies to "solve" the "Assyrian problem." First, Baghdad has publicly denied the existence of any ethnic group apart from Kurdish and Arabic. It requires that all Assyrians (including Chaldeans, Syriacs, and those defining themselves as Church of the East) register their ethnicity as either Arabs or Kurds. Second, a campaign was unleashed through which Chaldean and Assyrians were targeted for arabization. Third, Assyrians were denied media access (radio, television and print) through which their national aspirations, culture, or language could be expressed.

The Decree for the Cultural Rights of Syriac-speaking people, issued in the early 1970s, was quickly forgotten. A radio station created as the result of this decree was closed after a few months. The two magazines allowed to be published printed 90 percent of their material in Arabic. No school was allowed to teach in Syriac. As Hanna points out: "With the restrictions on teaching in the Syriac language, no wonder that the government used that to blame it on the inability of the Assyrians to read and write in their own language." He adds that at present, at least 90 percent of the Assyrians are unable to read or write in their own language.

To counter the Ba'thist policies, Hanna calls on the Assyrian community in the United States to use its economic muscle to create a lobbying group to force Saddam Husseyn to ease off on its racist policies and to bring a halt to Baghdad's efforts to force Assyrian children to study the Koran. And Hanna argues that these groups should also form their own political organizations to advance their interests. (David Nissman)

A GAGAUZ MODEL FOR IRAQI TURKOMANS. Iraqi Turkomans have long sought to establish an autonomous region to be called Turkmeneli near Irbil, a city in Iraq now under control of the Kurdistan Regional Government. They appear likely to renew this demand at a meeting of the Turkoman Council slated to be held in Irbil later in February. But as in the past, they face a serious problem: the current Iraqi Constitution does not recognize the Turkomans or the Assyrians as separate ethnic groups. Indeed, that document does not recognize their languages either because neither group uses the Arabic script: The Turkomans use the Latin script and the Assyrians Chaldean Syriac.

According to Safin Diza'i, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Ankara, "this problem should be settled with Baghdad." But so far, Baghdad has shown little inclination to make a deal. Were that to change, there are several models for how it might behave. One particularly attractive precedent involves the establishment of the Gagauz yeri autonomous region in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

The process by which Gagauz yeri was created is detailed in a paper published by Levente Benko, "Autonomy in Gagauzia: A Precedent for Central and Eastern Europe?" in the current issue of the Internet journal "Bitig." He reviews the history of Moldovan independence, and role played by the Gagauz within it. The creation of Gagauz yeri is not only a precedent for Central and Eastern Europe -- as Benko shows, it could also be a model for Iraq.

The Gagauz community in southern Moldova is a people of Turkic origin, the ancestors of whom had fled the continuous Balkan wars of the 18th century to Russia. They were settled in Bessarabia by the Empress Katherine II under the condition that they convert to Orthodox Christianity. According to official data, there are approximately 153,000 Gagauz, roughly 3.5 percent of the Moldovan population.

In 1991, when Moldova gained independence from the USSR, the Gagauz formed their own armed militias. Since Moldovan forces were fighting Russian units in the Transdniester region, there were only occasional armed clashes between the Moldovans and the Gagauz militia. As a result, the death toll was very low. Moreover, the majority of the Gagauz leadership never questioned the territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova. Therefore, negotiations between Moldovan President Mircea Snegur and a Gagauz delegation headed by "Gagauz Republic Supreme Soviet" chairman Mikhail Kendigelyan began as early as September 1992.

These talks led to the passage of the Gagauz Autonomy Act of 1994. Its expressed aim "is to provide for the preservation of Gagauz national identity, the flourishing of the Gagauz language and culture, and to secure political and economic independence for this nationality." The act stresses that within the Gagauz territory all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, are considered to be equal.

The territory of Gagauz yeri consists of all localities where the proportion of the Gagauz population exceeds 50 percent. And it also includes areas where the Gagauz population are fewer than 50 percent but where the local population votes to include its territory within the Gagauz region. All of this took place without violence and with the maintenance of stability across Moldova.

The Gagauz yeri success story is not the only one in Europe. A similar approach was taken in the southern Tyrolean parts of Italy, where much of the population is German-speaking. And there is also the case of the Aland lslands in Finland.

Such provisions of national autonomy was first accepted by the international community after World War I, when the empires in Central and Eastern Europe had collapsed and their successor states were not much more homogenous in their ethnic composition than their predecessors. As a result, Benko points out that "new states were obliged to provide a high degree of self-government and autonomy to their respective national minorities."

But at present, there is no international regulation obliging states to create special self-governing institutions for minorities on their territories. Nonetheless, success stories like that of the Gagauz encourage both governments and especially minorities like the Iraqi Turkomans and the Assyrians to seek out such an arrangement. And their demands could find some support in Baghdad particularly if the central Iraqi government wants to reextend its authority into the northern part of the country. (David Nissman)