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Analysis: Turkey Makes Plans For Iraq

Turkish newspapers this week are reporting that the Turkish government has formulated a contingency plan that would place at least 20,000 Turkish troops inside northern Iraq in an effort to prevent Kurdish leaders from changing the demographic structure of the highly contested city of Kirkuk.

The plan ostensibly calls for the reentry of Turkish forces into northern Iraq to rout out Turkish-Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and also calls for Turkish troops to prevent further Iraqi Kurdish migration to Kirkuk. The city has a large Turkoman (ethnic Turkish) population, and vast oil reserves.

Media reports in recent months indicate that large numbers of Kurds are migrating to the city. Kurds say that they were displaced under the Hussein regime and are returning to their rightful homes; Turkey claims that Iraqi Kurdish leaders Mas'ud Barzani and Jalal Talabani want to ensure a Kurdish majority in the city under the next census in order to claim it as rightfully theirs, and possibly seek its inclusion in a federal Kurdistan.

Barzani heightened Turkish concern over Kirkuk in recent weeks through a number of inflammatory statements that made clear that Iraqi Kurds seek the return of Kirkuk to Kurdistan (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 22 October 2004). He told reporters in the Turkish capital on 12 October that Kirkuk has a Kurdish "identity," and vowed to fight any force that attempts to intercede in the issue (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 15 October 2004).

According to news reports published in Istanbul dailies "Cumhuriyet," "Milliyet," and "Sabah" between 30 October and 1 November, Ankara's contingency plan was reviewed during a 14 October cabinet meeting attended by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, chief of General Staff General Hilmi Ozkok, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul, and Turkish envoy to Iraq Osman Koruturk, among others. "Milliyet" reported on 1 November that the plan calls for the deployment of two army corps divisions to the area, including a 40,000-strong force to stand ready to enter northern Iraq on 18-hours notice. Those troops would first focus on PKK camps in the Qandil mountain range with the assistance of air support.
Turkish concerns over the presence of PKK militants in northern Iraq have been heightened by reports that Syrian and Iranian Kurds have joined Turkish Kurds in northern Iraq.

Turkish concerns over the presence of PKK militants in northern Iraq have been heightened by reports that Syrian and Iranian Kurds have joined Turkish Kurds in northern Iraq, "Sabah" reported on 31 October. The daily claimed that the number of militants present there has increased dramatically from the 2,000 that fled across the Turkish-Iraqi border on the orders of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan four years ago. "Sabah" cited as "proof" the discovery of Syrian and Iranian nationals among those militants killed in clashes "over the past few days."

"Cumhuriyet" reported on 30 October that the Turkish force would consist of 20,000 troops, and claimed that military forces have already begun their deployment toward the Turkish-Iraqi border. The daily also claimed that Turkey has received tacit approval from U.S. officials to intervene in Kirkuk. "Cumhuriyet" also reported that the contingency plan was further discussed at a 27 October meeting between the Turkish National Security Council and the Turkish armed forces.

The newspapers' reports claim that Barzani and Talabani are operating under the false assumption that Turkey would not take action against the "Kurdization" of Kirkuk before the 17 December EU Summit, when Turkey will begin accession talks with the European Union. But as "Sabah" contended: "There are national goals and causes that are more important than the EU.... For Kirkuk is in fact not the heart of Kurdistan, but rather that of Turkey's Iraq policy."

It remains rather unlikely that the United States has given any sort of tacit approval for a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq. While the dailies are correct in reporting that the United States is perhaps wary of any demographic transformation of the city, it is a far stretch to assume that the United States would permit Turkish troops to move deep into northern Iraq. Iraq's Kurds would interpret such as move as an invasion, and large-scale fighting would ensue. Baghdad would also not be welcome to such an incursion, since it would destabilize the whole of northern Iraq, which has experienced relative quiet since the fall of the Hussein regime.

However, it is clear that something is afoot in northern Iraq. A 12 October MENA report stated that Kurdish peshmerga forces were moving troops further north and digging tunnels and establishing military outposts near Dahuk, close to the Turkish border. The news agency said the new positions of peshmerga would effectively give them control over the major land entry points along the border. Turkey has had a long-standing interest in Kirkuk because of its vast oil reserves, and Turkish leaders in 2003 attempted to claim a Turkish historical right to the city (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 13 January 2003).