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Analysis: Kurdish Rebels Top Tripartite Agenda In Ankara

A Kurdish PKK supporter (file photo) Iraqi, Turkish, and U.S. officials met in Ankara on 11 January to discuss Turkish demands that the U.S. and Iraqi militaries address the issue of Turkish-Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq.

Turkey has called on the United States for several months to crush PKK/Kongra-Gel bases in Iraq, but Washington appears hesitant to do so.

U.S. Central Command commander General John Abizaid told Turkish Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Gul at the meeting that while the United States considers the PKK a terrorist organization, "We also understand...that our troops have a lot of work to do there along with the Iraqi security forces, and we agree that, over time, we must deal with the PKK," reported on 12 January.

Iraqi Aims

Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid al-Bayati represented his government at the meeting, telling journalists at a subsequent news briefing that the Iraqi government is not opposed to taking military action against the PKK but it is currently not in a position to do so. He said any military operation "will take place in coordination with the multinational forces in Iraq," Anatolia news agency reported on 11 January. Al-Bayati added that Iraqi, Turkish, and U.S. officials would hold "technical discussions" on the issue but did not say when those discussions would begin.

The Iraqis did agree at the meeting, however, to increase security along the Turkish-Iraqi border and to prevent illegal crossings, Istanbul's "Milliyet" reported on 13 January. The Iraqi delegation also agreed address the issue of participation by the Democratic Solution Party (a PKK political group) in the Iraqi elections with the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission. That commission has stipulated that armed militias cannot participate in the election, yet the party is listed on the ballots for national and Kurdistan parliamentary elections. Both sides also committed themselves to a previous agreement that any PKK members arrested in Iraq would be subject to Iraqi law rather than being handed over to Turkish authorities. It was also agreed that pressure would be applied to Turkish Kurds living in Iraq's Makhmur Camp to induce their return to Turkey, "Milliyet" reported.

Turkey Presses U.S.

Turkey has pressured the United States to address the issue of PKK militants since before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. At that time, as the United States lobbied to gain access to Turkish military airbases ahead of the invasion, the Turkish military contended that a power vacuum would be created in northern Iraq during the war that would allow the PKK to launch attacks against Turkey, despite assurances by the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties that no such attacks would take place (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 14 March 2003).

Washington later sought Turkish military support in Iraq, but Turkish officials used the PKK issue as a bargaining chip, saying they would not commit troops to Iraq until the United States cracked down on the PKK. U.S. officials said they would not move against militants at the time due to a five-month amnesty issued by Turkey a month earlier (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 25 September 2003). Just days later, the United States and Turkey agreed on a plan of action to eliminate the PKK's presence in Iraq, but that plan apparently never came to fruition. Iraqi Kurdish leader Mas'ud Barzani later criticized Turkey, saying: "The Americans do not think the Turkish [amnesty] offer is sufficient or else they would have clamped down on the PKK with an iron fist." He added, "If a new law was passed and a real amnesty was issued, many of the militants would come down from the mountains leaving their leaders behind." Indeed, few PKK militants accepted the amnesty offer.

Turkey continued to press the issue with U.S. officials throughout 2004, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan telling reporters on 11 June that the PKK presence in northern Iraq would be "high on the agenda" of his meeting with President George W. Bush in Washington that month, adding, "We expect the United States to take some concrete steps to this end." Interim Iraqi President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir vowed to Turkish officials in Ankara on 16-17 August that his government would work to eradicate the presence of the PKK but warned Turkey not to interfere in Iraq's domestic affairs (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 18 August 2004). Turkey upped its pressure on Iraq in November as media reports indicated that the government had formulated a plan that would send as many as 40,000 Turkish soldiers across the border to root out the militants (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 11 November 2004).

Looking Ahead

Media reports suggest that the United States might attempt to take concrete steps in the coming months toward rooting out the militants, but as indicated above, the issue of the PKK arguably cannot be addressed as long as U.S. forces are tied up with battling insurgents in Iraq. The United States might also be wary of launching an operation against the PKK in northern Iraq, as such action could potentially destabilize the relative calm there. The PKK is estimated to have some 5,000 members in the region, according to a PKK member interviewed in Berlin's "Die Welt" on 8 January. The issue however, could be complicated by a new U.S. request for access to Turkey's Incirlik airbase. Anatolia news agency has reported that Abizaid has sought access to that base for U.S. logistical operations.

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