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Iraq: Kurdish Official Discusses Relations With Turkey

A Turkish Kurd waves a PKK flag during a demonstration in Istanbul on March 19 (epa) RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo on April 26 interviewed Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) International Relations Director Saffin Dizay, who spoke by telephone from Salah Al-Din. Dizay discusses a wide range of matters relating to Iraq's relations with Turkey and said that Iraq's Kurdish leaders would be willing to play a role in helping find a peaceful solution to Turkey's "Kurdish problem."

RFE/RL: There has been a large Turkish military buildup along the Iraqi border in recent weeks. Turkish media have speculated that the buildup was in preparation for a major operation against the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) in Iraq. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said during U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Turkey on April 25 that no such operation is planned, but many are still wondering about the status of Turkish forces on the border with Iraq.

Saffin Dizay: I think it's very natural for Madame Rice to visit Turkey. Turkey is, of course, an ally of the United States and it is a NATO member country, and before [that] she visited Greece. So, we do not read much between the lines about the visit. There have been similar visits by Dr. Rice and other senior officials of the U.S. government to Turkey.

As far as the Turkish military buildup, of course it's within the boundaries of Turkey and it cannot spread or spillover into Iraqi Kurdistan's territory. And we think and hope that it will remain as such, because we have seen similar buildups in previous years.... Every spring there have been troops built up after the winter conditions, and there have been times in the past [when there were] cross-border operations. But of course today Iraq is a sovereign country. Iraq has regained its sovereignty and the agreement that existed before between Baghdad and Ankara on the hot pursuit by the Turkish military into Iraqi territory is no longer valid. We do not think that such operations are intended in any case.

RFE/RL: When Rice was in Ankara she called for a reactivation of the trilateral mechanism between Iraq, Turkey, and the United States with regard to the PKK. Have Iraqi Kurdish officials heard anything from Turkey with regard to these talks?

Dizay: No, there hasn't been any direct approach from Ankara, although toward the end of last year, there were some contacts and some positive messages that Turkey is willing to resolve this problem through [talks] -- not necessarily the issue related to the PKK, but the overall problem [related] to the Kurdish issue.

Of course, we have always welcomed a peaceful, democratic solution to any problem. We believe that a military solution is not the answer. As far as dialogue with Ankara, we've never had a problem with dialogue. Although since regime change in Iraq there has been less contact with Ankara due to having an active and legitimate [national] government in Baghdad, an active Foreign Ministry in Baghdad.... Nevertheless, we are ready to talk to Ankara on a bilateral level in Kurdistan within the KDP scope or within the Kurdistan Regional Government scope...especially on economic, social, and cultural developments. We enjoy very good [relations]. This process has been developed a great deal. Turkish firms are very much engaged in Kurdistan. Most of the construction work, the tenders have been given to Turkish companies. So we don't have any problems in that field.

On the political level, we have always welcomed contact and for the last 15 years, since 1991, we have been dealing with Ankara openly. We know the people in Ankara, [and] they know us well. We do not want third parties to help us to regain such contacts. I think direct contacts is helpful, and we welcome direct contacts.

In fact, most of the political faces in Baghdad are very new to Turkey, [while Iraqi] Kurdish leaders are familiar to Turkey. We have tried, and we can help Turkey -- and other neighbors for that matter. Kurdish leaders are very well known to the Iranians, to the Syrians.... So we can be a bridge between these countries and the future Iraq. And the fact that we have high-level representation in the Iraqi government from the president downward, that should be a blessing and it could be a gain for all [Iraq's] neighbors to have these people in Baghdad.

"Even Prime Minister [Recep Tayyib] Erdogan himself not long ago in Diyarbakir declared that there is a problem called 'the Kurdish problem.' So if that issue has been accepted by the Turkish state, then you have to seek a solution for it. If we [in Iraq] feel that we can be part of that solution or we can help with a solution, we will do so."

RFE/RL: When outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari was in Turkey earlier this year, what kind of impact did that have on relations between Iraq's Kurdish leaders and Ankara?

Dizay: Obviously, the former prime minister's visit to was not of much concern what he would discuss with the Turks. Very rightly, as prime minister of Iraq, he would discuss issues related to bilateral ties with Turkey, as well as issues related to Iraq and the present situation. But the concern was [more] about the legality of the visit, that he was a caretaker prime minister and such visits...had no legal base to enter into dialogue or even to sign agreements with neighbors. That was the only concern that was raised.

We have been dealing with Ankara much longer than Prime Minister al-Ja'fari or any other Iraqi leadership, so we don't have any concern about what is being discussed.... The concern was not so much the agenda, but the timing of the visit because we were on the verge of forming a new government in Baghdad and the legal basis for his visit was at question.

RFE/RL: Do you think that the KDP could play a mediating role between the PKK and Turkey?

Dizay: It's not so much playing a mediating role between the PKK and Turkey. Turkey has to be ready and Turkey has to declare how she wants to resolve this problem. We do not want to interfere in the internal affairs of Turkey, [just as] we do not want to see Turkey or other neighbors interfere in the affairs of Kurdistan or Iraq as a whole. But obviously if Turkey wants to approach this issue to solve this once and for all through, hopefully, peaceful means [and] not military measures, if our assistance is required, we will certainly consider contributing to it. But that will have to come from Turkey -- what role we can play -- rather than for us to impose our position.

RFE/RL: If Turkey asked the KDP to mediate, do you think the response from the PKK would be positive?

Dizay: Do not [relate] the whole Kurdish problem in Turkey to the PKK. This issue [between Turkey and its Kurdish population] was there before the PKK, and it will be there after the PKK. We believe there is an issue and even Prime Minister [Recep Tayyib] Erdogan himself not long ago in Diyarbakir declared that there is a problem called "the Kurdish problem." So if that issue has been accepted by the Turkish state, then you have to seek a solution for it. If we [in Iraq] feel that we can be part of that solution or we can help with a solution, we will do so.

RFE/RL: What is the status of Turkish forces inside [Iraqi] Kurdistan. We know that there are Turkish troops stationed in Kurdistan, for example, in Bamarni.

Dizay: As you know since 1992 there was a good deal of cooperation and understanding on security issues and through the mid-1990s -- 1996, 1997 -- the presence of about 1,000 or so troops in Bamarni remains to be there. And we didn't have problems with them and they keep a low profile. And whenever [there will be] a need for them to leave, or whenever the federal government asks foreign troops to leave, I'm sure the Turkish side will leave.... We don't have any problem with them, to be fair.

RFE/RL: When the Turkish forces that are stationed in Iraqi Kurdistan go off their base on operations, is there an agreement in place that they must obtain the permission of the KDP?

Dizay: No, they are there on the base and they are not conducting any operations. They are not [there] in an operational capacity.

Leyla Zana (epa file photo)

RFE/RL: What can you tell us about Turkish-Kurdish human rights activist Leyla Zana's visit to Iraqi Kurdistan this week?

Dizay: This visit was postponed several times. She had requested to visit Kurdistan and to meet with [regional] President [Mas'ud] Barzani and with [Iraqi] President [Jalal] Talabani, but because of the hectic agenda in Baghdad -- both men were in Baghdad until very recently -- and once this time was available to have an audience with President Barzani, she arrived. And she held a meeting [with him] yesterday.

I was asked by Turkish media about her visit while there is a Turkish military buildup [on the border]. Her visit under no circumstances has any bearing [on] the troop buildup [and] it's not [related] to the troop buildup of the last 10 days or two weeks. She's been planning to visit Kurdistan for the last couple of months.

Iraq's Kurdish Region

Iraq's Kurdish Region

KURDISH AWAKENING: The ethnic Kurdish region in the northern part of Iraq has struggled in recent years to reestablish its cultural and political identity after decades of oppression under the regime of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In December, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel traveled to this area and filed several reports:

Relative Peace Underscores Issue Of Kurdish Region's Future

Kurdish Culture Begins To Flourish In Kurdistan Region

Kurds Ponder How To Strengthen Autonomy After Elections

Irbil’s Kurds Live On A Hill Of Undiscovered Treasures

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.