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Iraq Report: July 5, 2007

Turkey Ratchets Up Pressure For Action Against PKK

By Sumedha Senanayake

A PKK fighter in northern Iraq looks across the border into Turkey on June 20

July 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Recent figures by Turkish military sources indicate that attacks by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels have surged this year. Turkish officials charge that many of the weapons and much of the training and logistical support for the rebels originates from PKK-run bases in northern Iraq, at which up to 3,800 rebels are thought to operate.

While the Turkish government has repeatedly urged the United States and Iraq to move against the PKK, political complications, particularly with regard to Iraq's Kurds, have prevented any large operations against the rebel group.

Since 2004, Turkey has warned that it will go after the PKK in northern Iraq if its warnings are not heeded. Despite repeated warnings by the United States for Turkey not to carry out unilateral military actions in northern Iraq, recent indications suggest that Ankara is on the verge of actually doing just that. With thousands of Turkish troops amassed along Iraq's border, a major military operation seems imminent.

On June 30, the Turkish daily "Radikal" reported that Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul warned that a military plan was in place to invade northern Iraq if U.S. or Iraqi forces failed to move against the PKK bases there. While details of the plan were not known, it is believed the Turkish military might try to establish a buffer zone in northern Iraq to curb the rebels' movements.

Ankara is losing patience with the U.S. refusal to move against the PKK, even though Washington has labeled the group a terrorist organization.

Gul's warning came on the heels of comments by Turkish General Yasar Buyukanit, the head of Turkish armed forces, about the need to conduct cross-border operations against PKK rebels in northern Iraq. Buyukanit also indicated that he had requested the Turkish government draw up political guidelines for any sort of military incursion into the region.

The comments by Gul and Buyukanit have been the clearest signs yet that Turkey is planning a major military operation. The threatening rhetoric has been coupled with sporadic, and sometimes unconfirmed reports in the Iraqi and regional press of shelling and limited cross-border military operations by Turkish forces.

However, the threats also come as Turkey prepares for general elections on July 22. The increasingly aggressive rhetoric from Ankara may be partly the result of criticism by the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which has been accusing the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party of lacking the political will to move against PKK rebels in Iraq.

The Turkish parliament is currently in recess for the elections, but the cabinet of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to hold a final pre-election meeting on July 9. There is wide speculation in the Turkish press that the cabinet could give the green light for some sort of military operation in northern Iraq.

Pressuring The United States To Act

While Turkey has ratcheted up its threats to intervene in northern Iraq, it has also increased pressure on the United States to crack down on the PKK. In fact, accusations of U.S. failure to curb PKK activities have intensified into outright suspicions in the Turkish press that the United States may actually be aiding the rebel group.

The Turkish media widely reported on July 1 that four former PKK fighters who had "escaped" from a PKK-run base at Mount Qandil in northern Iraq claimed to have seen U.S. military vehicles delivering arms to the camp. The Turkish government said it did not have further information concerning the allegations and the U.S. Embassy in Ankara vehemently denied them.

While the veracity of the allegations by four masked ex-PKK fighters may be somewhat dubious, it could well have been a tactic by Ankara to express its frustration with the United States and to increase the pressure on Washington to move against the PKK.

Turkish forces moving toward the Iraqi border in May (AFP)

Indeed, several Turkish leaders have even indicated that the United States is displaying a certain double standard regarding its commitment to fighting terrorism. The "Anatolia" news agency reported on July 4 that AKP lawmaker Egemen Bagis said Ankara is losing patience with the U.S. refusal to move against the PKK, even though Washington has labeled the group a terrorist organization.

"I cannot argue that we are making sufficient progress with the U.S. against PKK terrorism," Bagis said. "The Turkish nation is losing its patience. The prime minister is holding necessary talks. But we expect our ally [the U.S.] to take action against terrorism as soon as possible, and this is a correct and just expectation."

Washington's Hands Are Tied In Iraq

The United States has indeed shown an unwillingness to move against the PKK, and for good reason. One reason is that Washington is far too focused on stabilizing Iraq to shift valuable resources to mount a serious crack down against the PKK. Pressure from the U.S. Congress to show tangible gains from the surge strategy is immense and growing. At this juncture, it is extremely unlikely that resources would be allocated to northern Iraq to assuage Turkish anxieties.

In addition, with U.S. and Iraqi forces currently engaged in major campaigns against Sunni insurgents, Shi'ite militias, and Al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters throughout Iraq, opening an additional front against the PKK in the north does not seem feasible.

In addition, any aggressive U.S.-led operation against the PKK in northern Iraq risks enraging the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, who may view it as an infringement on their semi-autonomous status. In turn, they may decide to distance the region from the Baghdad government, creating additional political tension.

At the same time, the United States is highly reluctant to pressure Iraqi Kurdish leaders into cracking down on the PKK for fear of antagonizing them. In the chaotic atmosphere of Iraqi politics, Washington can ill afford to alienate its most steadfast ally.

Alienating the Kurds could also lead to serious consequences for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government given its tenuous position. The Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament, has decided to boycott the Iraqi government after an arrest warrant was issued against Sunni lawmaker and Iraqi Culture Minister As'ad al-Hashimi.

In addition, radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr's political movement and the Islamic Virtue Party (Al-Fadilah) have pulled out of the Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance. Any further withdrawals or boycotts could lead to either greater political paralysis or, worse, the collapse of the government.

Latest U.S. Charges On Iran Raise Tensions In Iraq

By Sumedha Senanayake

U.S. General Bergner discussing the confession of Ali Musa Duqduq on July 2

July 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military announced on July 2 that it had arrested a senior Hizbollah operative in the southern city of Al-Basrah on March 20 and that he had admitted to working with the Quds Force, a secret military wing linked to Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC).

The operative, Ali Musa Duqduq, also reportedly indicated that he had assisted in planning and carrying out an attack on a military base in Karbala on January 20 that killed five U.S. soldiers.

U.S. Brigadier-General Kevin Bergner said Duqduq was the liaison between the Quds Force and a breakaway Shi'ite group that actually carried out the Karbala attack. This group was supposedly headed by Qays al-Khaz'ali, a former spokesman for radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Bergner noted that given the sophistication of the Karbala attack, where fighters dressed in U.S. security uniforms to bypass several checkpoints; the fighters "could not have conducted this complex operation without the support and direction of the Quds Force." And by extension, singling out the Quds Force means that Bergner is strongly implying the Iranian leadership must have had prior knowledge to the operation.

In addition, Duquq reportedly acknowledged that the Quds Force and Hizbollah operated camps near Tehran to train Iraqi fighters that were later sent back to Iraq to carry out attacks. He apparently claimed that approximately 20 to 60 fighters were being trained at any given time.

A Long Litany Of Accusations

The charges are not the first time the United States has accused Iranian-linked agents of operating in Iraq. On January 11, U.S. forces arrested five Iranians in the northern city of Irbil, accusing them of having links to the Quds Force. Not only does Tehran deny these accusations, it denies the existence of the Quds Force.

However, the recent revelations paint the most detailed picture publicly released of Iran's alleged indirect military involvement in Iraq.

Duqduq's reported confession would seem to support the notion that the Iraq conflict is being turned into a proxy war between Shi'ite-dominated Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, with U.S. forces caught in the middle.

If enough Sunnis lose faith in the political process and accept the notion that change can only be brought about at gunpoint, then all hope for national reconciliation will vanish.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker expressed concerns about alleged Quds Force involvement in Iraq during a May 28 press conference in Baghdad, after a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Hasan Kazemi.

"I laid out before the Iranians a number of our direct specific concerns about their behavior in Iraq, their support for militias that are fighting both the Iraqi security forces and coalition forces," Crocker said. "The fact that a lot of the explosives and ammunition that are used by these groups are coming in from Iran, that such activities led by the IRGC Quds Force needed to cease, and that we would be looking for results."

Pitting Iran Against Saudi Arabia

At the same time, there has been much speculation in the regional and international press concerning the issue of alleged Saudi support for Sunni fighters in Iraq, which Riyadh purportedly sees as a counterweight to Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias. Indeed, a Shi'ite-dominated Iraq would be direct threat to Saudi Arabia, influencing the kingdom's sizable and long-repressed Shi'ite minority.

On November 29, 2006, the then-director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, Nawaf Obaid, published an opinion piece in "The Washington Post" suggesting that if the United States withdrew its troops from Iraq, Saudi Arabia would arm Sunni Arabs to counter Iran's alleged support of Shi'ite militias in Iraq. Obaid was subsequently fired for his comments.

Two weeks later, on December 13, 2006, "The New York Times" reported that Saudi Arabia would intervene on behalf of Iraq's Sunni Arabs if the United States prematurely pulls out of Iraq. Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz allegedly made the suggestion to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney when the latter was in Riyadh on November 25.

The Sunni-Shi'a Divide In The Middle East: Click to enlarge the image.

An escalation by Iran and Saudi Arabia could eventually lead to a broader regional conflict that could destabilize the Persian Gulf region. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group underscored this danger when it warned that regional states "may take active steps to limit Iran's influence, steps that could lead to an intraregional conflict."

The Sunni-Shi'a Divide

The new accusations that the Quds Force has been training Shi'ite militias will not come as a surprise to Iraq's Sunni Arab community. One of the major grievances Sunni leaders have repeatedly expressed about the post-Hussein Iraqi government is its clear tilt toward Shi'ite Iran. A tilt, Sunnis claim, that has pushed the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad to further marginalize Iraq's Sunni population.

Indeed, the aim of the so-called Iraqi armed resistance -- the nationalist movement that is dominated by Sunnis and ex-Ba'athists -- is not only to end the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, but also to counter what they see as Iran's dangerous influence in Iraq. The resistance and many Sunni leaders, claim that Iran arms Shi'ite militias with the purpose of killing Sunni Arabs, and the Iraqi government does little more than turn the other way. They point to the government's inability or unwillingness to disarm al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

An escalation by Iran and Saudi Arabia could eventually lead to a broader regional conflict that could destabilize the Persian Gulf region.

Although the frequency of sectarian killings attributed to Shi'ite militia elements dramatically dropped during the first two months of the U.S. troop "surge" that began in February, bodies, bound and sometimes headless, have recently begun to appear more frequently in and around Baghdad, a sign that the sectarian killings have resumed.

Moreover, Sunnis see themselves as being besieged by rabid anti-Sunni sentiment from the Shi'ite-led government. Legislation to repeal the de-Ba'athification process and allow thousands of ex-Ba'athists to return to their government positions has been met with strident opposition from Shi'ite leaders. The review committee responsible for proposing constitutional amendments has yet to announce its recommendations.

Radicalizing The Sunnis

Last week, an arrest warrant was issued against Sunni lawmaker and Iraqi Culture Minister As'ad al-Hashimi, prompting the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament, to withdraw its six members from the Iraqi cabinet.

Iraqi Culture Minister As'ad al-Hashimi (epa file photo)

Duqduq's revelations may further radicalize some elements of the Sunni community toward armed resistance. Sunni lawmaker Abd al-Nasir al-Janabi, a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, told Al-Jazeera satellite television on June 30 that he had resigned from parliament and quit the Iraqi Accordance Front because he felt that the political process had "become a tool of destruction in the hands of the U.S. and Iranian occupation in Iraq." Consequently, al-Janabi decided to join the armed resistance because it was the only option afforded him and "the only way to rescue Iraq from the crisis it is facing."

Although Al-Janabi's position is extreme, it is could be telling. If enough Sunnis lose faith in the political process and accept the notion that change can only be brought about at gunpoint, then all hope for national reconciliation will vanish.

The United States will then have to deal with an even a more fervent Sunni armed resistance, re-energized Shi'ite militias, and the threat from Al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters. The ensuing scenario could push the U.S. military deeper into the Iraq predicament and eventually lead to the disintegration of the nation.

Expert Questions Election Validity In Conflict Areas

Jarrett Blanc

July 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Jarrett Blanc is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow and a visiting scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, where he is researching elections conducted amid civil conflict. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke with him about the challenges of conducting elections in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq or in postconflict environments like Kosovo.

RFE/RL: Is it possible to have free and fair elections in conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan?

Jarrett Blanc: No. The idea is almost necessarily paradoxical for a few reasons. One is that elections are necessarily dependent on the rule of law. They are legal institutions. And so, where the law does not exist or the law is not enforceable, then elections are quite limited in what they can achieve. And from a security perspective, you have to expect that if a government is unable to protect its citizens on the average day, it is going to be unable to protect its citizens on the especially tense election day.

"The only thing that we can...have is the greatest of respect at the...courage [Iraqis] have shown in [voting] in the face of tremendous threats -- and great sympathy...for the fact that the elections were not...better designed strategically to contribute to a termination of the conflict."

RFE/RL: If it's not possible to have free and fair elections in conflict zones, this suggests that the very nature of the election would be empowering one or another faction that is involved in the conflict. So does this mean that elections in conflict zones contribute more to the conflict than to conflict resolution?

Blanc: I'm not sure that it necessarily contributes more to conflict as opposed to conflict resolution. I think, though, that your question is leading in exactly the right direction -- which is that you have to think about the election within the broader context of the conflict and not imagine that you can recreate the political dynamics of a country simply because you're going to have an election. The people who are armed -- who are fighting the war -- are still going to be there. And if you haven't strategized about how the election is going to either contribute to terminating or contribute to worsening the conflict, you're probably not going to have a particularly good strategic outcome.

RFE/RL: Let's take a step back and look at sources of insecurity in elections within conflict areas. Perhaps we can divide them into three different categories. There are ongoing conflicts -- that is, combat situations. There are postconflict situations. And then there is insecurity that comes from the failure of the rule of law. How does each of these different sources of insecurity hamper the goal of fostering democracy through the ballot box?

Blanc: If we start with your first category of ongoing conflict, we need to remember that civil war and elections are essentially political activities with the same aim -- which is control of state power. And so, the way that an ongoing conflict hampers the objective of an election in a broad sense is that it is trying to achieve the same thing. The armed combatants are trying to take control of state power. And chances are they are not going to respect the results of the election. They are going to respect the results of the conflict.

RFE/RL: Would you define Afghanistan as an ongoing conflict or as a postconflict situation? How does that threaten future elections and the establishment of democracy there?

Blanc: Afghanistan is complicated partially because the different regions of the country are so different. But I would say that altogether it is still a conflictive situation. I think that in terms of the number of battle deaths per year, it meets most academic definitions of a civil war. And there hasn't been a recognized termination of the war. In other words, the majority of the combatants have not agreed to end the war on certain terms. And so I think that, for that reason, it is probably still a conflict situation or an ongoing civil war.

RFE/RL: In the case of Iraq, there have been elections which were hailed as a success because of a large voter turnout. But in the aftermath of those elections, there hasn't been any breakthrough on power sharing. What are your thoughts about the possibility of those elected officials in Iraq coming together on some kind of a power sharing agreement?

Blanc: It's possible but I don't think it is particularly likely. I think that if you look at the dynamics of the civil war in Iraq, the bad news is that, comparing it to other similar conflicts, the chances are that we are going to see a civil war that escalates -- gets worse and probably increases its regional component -- before you see the level of exhaustion that would be necessary to come to a negotiated solution. In theory, could the elected members of the [Iraqi] parliament, representing their communities [and] representing the armed factions to which they are close, come to some kind of an agreement and then hope that the armed factions will abide by and enforce that agreement? It is possible. But I don't think it is particularly likely.

RFE/RL: What criticisms do you have about the U.S. approach to democratic transition in Iraq?

Blanc: The U.S. strategy of benchmarks is misguided. And it is misguided because the benchmarks describe a political settlement that seems just and equitable to us. But we don't have direct contact with virtually any of the combatant forces in Iraq. We don't talk to Ayatollah al-Sistani. We don't talk to the military leaders of Sadr's armies. We don't even know who the Sunni military leaders are, let alone talk directly to them. The idea that a solution that seems equitable to us necessarily addresses the red lines of the combatants, I think, is very naive.

RFE/RL: How does the security situation on the ground in a postconflict environment like Kosovo impact the goal of establishing democracy?

Blanc: It really varies a great deal on what was the conflict and how was the conflict ended. For example, in Kosovo, where the conflict ended with both a fairly general agreement and with an overwhelming international peacekeeping force, you are able to conduct reasonably good elections where the outcome of the election is not necessarily determined by the military strength of the combatants. Where the postconflict situation, or the postconflict settlement, is more tenuous -- and I'm thinking here, perhaps, of Lebanon -- then the best you could hope for is probably some kind of power-sharing arrangement that is sealed by the election as opposed to a genuine expression of popular sovereignty.

RFE/RL: How does the failure of the rule of law impact democratic transformation in countries that are recovering from recent conflicts? And what impact can the election laws themselves have?

Blanc: In a way, we're mixing two problems. One is the failure of the rule of law from a perspective of election security -- and whether elections can be genuine expressions of popular sovereignty. There are instances here -- for example, a number of instances in Africa, in Nigeria, in South America, in Guyana -- where the state simply doesn't have good control over the security situation. And so, party-based violence or election-based violence can end up corrupting the result of the election. That's one set of problems. Another set of problems are the specifics of an election law and whether an election law is designed in order to produce a genuinely representative result.

A woman in a burqa with indelible ink on her thumb after voting in Kabul on October 9, 2004

RFE/RL: If we look at Afghanistan in this same way, the language of the electoral laws -- particularly with the parliamentary elections -- what we see happening in the Afghan parliament is that some members of parliament who are alleged to be war criminals have been declaring amnesty for themselves. There is a lot of frustration among ordinary Afghans about the idea that people who should be put on trial for war crimes are now lawmakers who are giving themselves immunity from prosecution. There also are questions about tribal voting blocs in Afghanistan that support strongmen of their ethnicity, or even from different clans within ethnic groups. What are the lessons that Afghanistan and the international community can learn from the way the Afghan elections have been conducted?

Blanc: You've identified a couple of very interesting problems with the Afghan process. Some of them probably could not have been addressed. And some of them could have been addressed a little better than they were. The one that I think could not have been addressed is this issue of the failure to disqualify people who are warlords or have committed war crimes. The international community and the government of Afghanistan simply do not have the kind of security control, military control of the territory, that would make those kinds of disqualifications possible. We could do that in Bosnia[-Herzegovina]. We could do that in Kosovo because there was an overwhelming international military force to enforce the decision and make sure that protests didn't get out of hand. If you tried to disqualify these actors in Afghanistan, you simply would have thrown the entire political process off track. So if you want to have that kind of control -- if you want to be able to completely reshape who are the leaders of the country -- you need to invest the sort of military force that makes that possible. And that is something that has never happened in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: What problems do you see with the way Afghanistan's election laws have been written?

Blanc: The Afghans chose a fairly unusual system of representation called a "single nontransferable vote." Suffice it to say that it is not particularly widely used in the world. And one of the reasons that it is not particularly widely used is that it has a strange paradoxical effect. On the one hand, it makes party formation difficult. And on the other hand, it very strongly rewards parties that do manage to organize themselves and get a little bit better organized than their competitors. And I think that you are seeing that now in the assembly. They simply do not have the level of party discipline. Each individual member is an independent actor. That makes it very difficult to get policy through. And it makes it very difficult for the voters to hold individual representatives ideologically accountable -- have you done what the party platform said you were going to do? One very unfortunate result of the system of representation that they chose is that about 70 percent of the votes cast in the parliamentary election went to candidates who didn't win. So only 30 percent of the votes went to winning candidates. And it is not hard to understand why people might be frustrated, or feel unrepresented by a parliament that is made up of winners with only 30 percent of the popular vote.

RFE/RL: Your criticisms about Afghanistan's election laws and the way they were implemented suggest that rather than contributing to conflict resolution, Afghanistan's elections could be enhancing conflict between paramilitary factions or militia groups.

Blanc: In principle, I don't necessarily agree with the idea that simply because the leaders or people who are linked to armed groups are in the assembly, that the assembly or the election cannot contribute to some sort of pacification process. In a way, I think it is the opposite. So long as you don't have the military force to address the militia problem, it might be -- at least in some situations -- better to have people inside the tent than outside of the tent. If you don't have the leaders of the militia in the assembly, it is quite possible that the assembly just doesn't mean anything.

RFE/RL: Any final thoughts about the lessons of the elections in Iraq and what impact the democratic process can have on the future of the conflict there?

Blanc: For the people of Iraq, the only thing that we can all have is the greatest of respect at the repeated courage they have shown in going out to vote in the face of tremendous threats -- and great sympathy and regret for the fact that the elections were not, to my mind, better designed strategically to contribute to a termination of the conflict. At this point in the conflict, I'm not convinced that a political process like an election can mean very much. Probably, it is going to take a little bit of time -- either some sort of negotiated solution or, unfortunately, an exhaustion of the civil war, before we can meaningfully start talking about what elections can contribute again.

RFE/RL: What final advice would you give to Afghanistan about the way the next elections are conducted there?

Blanc: In Afghanistan, I think the situation is more ambiguous. Over time, we might see that Afghan governments -- including [those empowered as] a result of the [last] elections and the result of future elections -- might be able to slowly negotiate improved conditions and a reduction in conflict. I think you've seen that in parts of the country already. I hope that the Afghans will consider whether some of the technical decisions they made in the first set of elections should be revised before the second set. This issue that I mentioned earlier about the system of representation would be one of them.