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Iraq, Turkey Nearing Deal To Deprive PKK Of Bases

  • Charles Recknagel

Nechirvan Barzani (left), the prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, meets with Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Baghdad on March 24.

Nechirvan Barzani (left), the prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, meets with Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Baghdad on March 24.

Turkey's efforts to deprive the PKK -- the armed Turkish Kurd rebel movement -- of bases in northern Iraq may have reached a watershed moment with Turkish President Abdullah Gul's current visit to Baghdad.

Gul's visit is Ankara's highest-level effort yet to normalize relations with Iraq since the ouster of former leader Saddam Hussein.

Six years ago, Turkey did not allow U.S. ground troops to invade Iraq through its territory. One reason was its fears an independent Kurdish state might arise in Iraq, fueling greater demands for autonomy in Turkey's own Kurdish population.

Such fears may still be heard in Ankara today. But much is changing about Turkey's relations with Iraq's Kurds in the meantime.

'PKK Has Two Choices'

Gul is now in Baghdad to press for Iraq to deprive the PKK of bases in the Iraqi Kurdish self-rule area. And Iraqi Kurdish leaders are signaling their readiness to help.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is also the leader of one of the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties, the PUK, said in Baghdad on March 23 that "the PKK has two choices: lay down its guns or leave Iraq."

On March 24, Gul met in Baghdad with Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government and the head of the other major Iraqi Kurdish party, the KDP.

Iraqi Kurdish journalist Same Shoresh, based in Irbil, says the visit sets the stage for two major regional shifts.

One is the PKK's loss of safe havens in northern Iraq amid stepped-up regional pressure upon the group to give up its armed struggle with Ankara.

The second is the normalization of ties between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurdish self-rule area, something Turkey has long avoided.

Shoresh says much of the work appears to have been done ahead of time by a tripartite committee set up in November by Iraq, Turkey, and the United States.

"They reached an agreement that, firstly, Ankara announces an amnesty for PKK fighters. Secondly, they have to find some Western countries which are ready to receive some PKK fighters whom Turkey is not able to amnesty because they are leaders of PKK," Shoresh says.

National Conference

Shoresh says that a further step in the new initiative will be a meeting to be held in Irbil next month.

"The Kurds of Iraq in the first half of next month will organize a national conference in Irbil. All Kurdish political parties, maybe among them the PKK itself, will participate in this conference," Shoresh says.

"The aim of this conference is to reach a common understanding among the Kurds of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, and Syria about how they can reach their national rights in the Middle East by peaceful means," he adds.

The meeting is expected to appeal to the PKK to disarm voluntarily as part of the choice presented them on March 23 by Talabani.

So far, the PKK has sent mixed signals as to whether it would do that.

The French news agency AFP quotes PKK foreign-relations chief Ahmed Deniss on March 23 as charging that "Turkey and the United States have a plan to disarm the PKK and liquidate it. They want the complicity of the Iraqi Kurdish government."

'Some First Signs'

But Shoresh says the PKK also recently announced a cease-fire that suggests it could scale back its military activities.

"There are some first signs," Shoresh says. "The PKK announced a cease-fire last month and it said this cease-fire is to help the Kurds to go to local elections at the end of this month [March 29], but it seems to also be to help peaceful efforts to find a way for the PKK and the Kurds of Turkey to reach a peaceful solution [with Ankara]."

The local elections come as Ankara in recent years has eased cultural restrictions on its Kurdish community, which is the largest minority in Turkey.

In March 2006, the government allowed private television channels to begin airing Kurdish-language programming. The chairman of the Higher Board of Education said recently that a department of Kurdish language and letters would be established in two leading universities in Ankara and Istanbul.

The PKK has been fighting for autonomy in Turkey's southeast since 1984 in a struggle that has taken tens of thousands of lives.

Military operations have regularly spilled into northern Iraq, where Ankara says some 2,000 PKK militants maintain bases. Ankara often accused the Iraqi Kurds of tolerating or even aiding the PKK and Turkish forces regularly targeted PKK bases in Iraq with air strikes and occasional sweeps across the border.

Political Tensions High

The crossborder operations kept political tensions between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds high despite the two sides' close economic relations.

They also added to Turkey's long-standing reluctance to take any diplomatic steps that appear to officially recognize the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) as a self-rule entity rather than deal with it through Baghdad.

But now that reluctance to directly seems upon the verge of ending.

Turkey has accepted the participation of KRG representatives in the three-country commission trying to disarm the PKK.

And the meeting on March 24 in Baghdad between Gul and Barzani marked the first time a Turkish leader has met officially with a high-ranking leader of the KRG.

"On behalf of the Kurdish region, Iraq, and the Iraqi Constitution," Barzani said after the meeting, "we would like to confirm our position. We will not allow [Kurdistan] to be a launching pad for attacks against neighboring countries."

All this suggests that Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds may work still more closely together in the future.

Both have good reasons to do so.

The Iraqi Kurds want to hold on to the gains they have made in obtaining an autonomous region.

And Ankara wants hold onto its gains against the PKK by removing that autonomous region from the group's reach.

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