PRAGUE, May 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkish media for days has been reporting that Ankara is planning a large-scale, cross-border operation against PKK hideouts in northern Iraq.
Istanbul's "Ortadogu" reported on April 23 that the Turkish armed forces had deployed two brigades to the Iraq border in preparation for the operation.
It said the campaign would include air strikes against six PKK camps in the Qandil Mountain range along the Turkish-Iraqi border, where an estimated 6,000 militants are believed to be sheltering.
Media Reports Denied
However, Turkish officials have been equally persistent in denying the media reports.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said on April 25 in Ankara that the troop buildup is a part of a routine, annual spring operation by Turkish forces to prevent “terrorists” from “infiltrating our borders.”
The reported buildup near the border is being closely watched in Kurdish-administered northern Iraq.
Saffin Dizay is director of International Relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two main parties in the Irbil-based Kurdistan Regional Government. (To read the complete interview with Dizay, click here.)
“As far as the Turkish military buildup, of course it's within the boundaries of Turkey and it has not spread or spilled over into Iraqi Kurdistan's territory," Dizay said. "And we think and hope that it will remain as such, because we have seen similar buildups in previous years, maybe not so much in the last five years, every spring there has been troops built up after the winter conditions and there has been times in the past [when there were] cross-border operations.”
Dizay also said any incursion into northern Iraq would be contrary to current agreements between Baghdad and Ankara.
“Of course today Iraq is a sovereign country, Iraq has regained its sovereignty and the agreement that existed before between Baghdad and Ankara of the hot pursuit by the Turkish military into Iraqi territory is no longer valid," he said. "So, we do not think that such operations are valid and we do not think such operations are intended in any case.”
Wondering About Washington
The question now is how Washington would react were Turkey to sweep into northern Iraq as it did routinely during the era of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The Turkish press says that Washington, which considers the PKK a terrorist group, has given tacit agreement to a Turkish military incursion.
But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on a visit to Ankara on April 25 that any such action would threaten to destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan.
"We need to work with the new Iraqi government and we will do that," Rice told Turkey's Gul. "We've had a trilateral mechanism on this issue and I hope that we can reinvigorate it when there is a new Iraqi government [in place.]"
The new Iraqi government is now being formed by Prime Minister-designate Nuri Kamil al-Maliki in Baghdad.
And Then There's Iran
Meanwhile, complicating the scene further, Iran has begun in recent weeks to shell bases along the Iran-Iraq border used by Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Free Life Party, an offshoot of the PKK.
Iran, like Turkey, has a sizeable Kurdish minority and worries that any successes for the separatist Turkish-Kurd PKK could fan demands for greater rights among Iranian-Kurds.
Both Turkey and Iran are also highly nervous about the high degree of self-rule enjoyed by Iraqi Kurds as they maintain a stable and functioning autonomous region in the new federal Iraq.
If Turkey is now preparing an incursion into northern Iraq, Ankara must weigh not only how the United States and Iran might react, but also whether it would damage Turkey’s own future relations with the Kurdish autonomous region.
Those relations include trade and economic investment that has grown substantially with U.S.-led efforts to reconstruct Iraq.
Improving Relations With Ankara
Dizay characterizes ties between Ankara and the Kurdish autonomous region as generally good.
“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]," Dizay said. "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.”
Dizay says Iraqi-Kurdish officials are willing to play a mediating role in Ankara’s conflict with the PKK and in the larger issue of Turkey’s relations with its Kurdish minority.
How Ankara will proceed next – and particularly if it launches a military incursion – will tell much about how Turkey views the new Iraq and its role in the region.
Washington has repeatedly said its aim is to transform Iraq into a democratic state that will increase regional stability. A military intervention by Turkey now could be a strong signal that Ankara has only limited faith that Washington can achieve that goal.
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: