The Iraqi government reacted strongly to the threat, calling on Turkey to respect Iraq's sovereignty and to resolve its dispute with the PKK through nonviolent means.
Turkey was reportedly not satisfied with the terms of the agreement signed last week between the two countries' interior ministers, Besir Atalay and Jawad al-Bulani. Turkey's main complaint was that a much-sought-after clause permitting the Turkish military to cross the border in "hot pursuit" of Kurdish militants was left out of the agreement. Turkey launched large-scale incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan twice in the 1990s, but failed to dislodge the PKK.
Instead, the September 28 agreement called for intelligence sharing, prosecution or extradition of wanted terrorists, the appointment of a diplomatic liaison officer to their respective missions, and the establishment of a coordination committee to be co-chaired by the two interior ministers, which would meet every six months to oversee implementation of the agreement.
The agreement calls on the parties to "take effective measures to prevent the preparation and commission of terrorist acts aimed at the security, territorial integrity and inviolability of borders, and safety of citizens of the other party."
The agreement was followed in recent days by two attacks by PKK militants on civilian and military targets inside Turkey that left some 26 people dead, prompting Erdogan to pledge to take action against the PKK, wherever the group is present. Estimates suggest more than 3,000 PKK fighters are hiding in the Qandil Mountain range in northern Iraq.Domestic Pressure For Action On PKK
Turkish armed forces Chief of Staff Yasar Buyukanit is one of the country's strongest proponents of a cross-border military attack on PKK bases. In late June, Buyukanit called on Ankara to lay out political guidelines for a military incursion following a standoff with Erdogan a month earlier, in which the prime minister refused to authorize military action.
Erdogan instead insisted that all diplomatic channels be exhausted before a military incursion into Iraq is considered. Later, he said Turkey should first deal with the 5,000 terrorists based inside its territory before it considered launching attacks on PKK bases in Iraq.
The issue took a temporary backseat to the July 22 general elections, but with elections out of the way, and mounting pressure on Erdogan to take action -- his party has been accused of lacking the political will to do so -- it appears the prime minister has been forced to take a tougher stand on the PKK.
Moreover, the government is facing mounting public pressure to reach some kind of political accommodation with its Kurdish population. Turkish President Abdullah Gul's mid-September visit to the Kurdish region in southeast Turkey was billed by some media as a government signal that Turkey's longstanding policy on its Kurdish population was changing. "The president, as the highest representative of the state, is communicating to Kurds that a new period has begun. He is hinting that the state will provide democratic solutions and ensure trust for the Kurdish policy in the new period, rather than implementing harsh precautionary measures and pressures," Mumtazer Turkone wrote in "Today's Zaman" on September 15.
However, that position was subverted by other realities. Yilmaz Oztuna, writing in the daily "Turkiye" on October 3, summed up one view of Turkish-Iraqi relations, implying the United States was blocking an incursion due to a long-standing grievance with Turkey.
Oztuna called both the September 28 agreement and U.S. policy on the PKK a "joke," saying that Turkey "will very soon regret" signing the agreement. "Overall, the U.S. continues to bear a grudge against Turkey because of the reaction of the March 1 parliamentary motion [a reference to the 2003 decision not to allow U.S. planes to launch attacks against Saddam Hussein from Incirlik air base], and in return, asks Turkey to accept its Iran policy with no objections. Otherwise, the U.S. hints, the Kurdish issue and the Armenian [genocide] issue will be used against Turkey."
Meanwhile, Gul shifted his position following an October 7 terrorist attack that left 13 soldiers dead. "Those who create, feed, and support terrorism should know that no force can stand against the determination of the Republic of Turkey to protect its inseparable integrity," he said.Iraqi Kurds' Autonomy As Political, Military Threat
One issue that lies heavily on the minds of Turkish leaders is the status of Iraqi Kurdistan. Should Iraq's Kurds seek further autonomy, try to extend the borders of their region, or attempt to break away from Iraq, Turkey has long been seen as likely to take action, in the belief that Iraq's Kurds will inspire Turkey's own Kurdish population to push for their own autonomous region.
Delivering the keynote address to the Turkish War Academies opening of the academic year on October 1, Buyukanit said: "Iraq is rapidly moving towards a confederation. Division in Iraq is very close. An independent state in the north of Iraq would not only be a political threat, but also a security threat to Turkey. Turkey must look at the north of Iraq from a political, military, and psychological perspective. Turkey must closely watch [developments] in the north of Iraq."
The very public welcoming of the September U.S. Senate resolution supporting federalism in Iraq by the Kurdistan regional government only escalated Turkish fears of Iraqi Kurdish separatism. Though the Kurdish statement welcomed U.S. support for federalism as outlined in the Iraqi Constitution, Turkish media saw it as a provocation.
Iraqi Turkomans, ethnic Turks who have close ties to Ankara, responded by saying they would press for the establishment of a Turkoman region in northern Iraq in order to secure their "legitimate national rights." The Turkomans said they would seek Ankara's help in establishing a "fourth region" should events necessitate it.
In what was seen by some as a petty reprisal, the Turkish government forbid Kurdish airlines from using Turkey's airspace, effectively blocking flights between Western Europe and the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Al-Sulaymaniyah. International Pressure Against Military Incursion
For the time being, a Turkish military incursion remains unlikely, given the intense foreign pressure on Turkey to seek a diplomatic resolution.
In its statement on the need for continued reforms to meet the requirements for EU accession, the European Parliament on October 3 called on Turkey to "launch a political initiative favoring a lasting settlement of the Kurdish issue," adding that Turkey should refrain from violating Iraq's territory.
The U.S. State Department commented on the possibility of a military strike on October 9. Despite a reported U.S. commitment earlier this year to take action against the PKK within Iraq's borders, spokesman Sean McCormack said: "As a general principle, we have counseled both Iraq as well as Turkey that the way to address the issue is to work cooperatively. In our view, it is not going to lead to a long-term, durable solution to have -- to have significant incursions from Turkey into Iraq."
Meanwhile, Russia called for restraint. "We understand the Turkish authorities' concerns about a recent string of terrorist attacks. At the same time, bearing in mind the high sensitivity of the tight tangle of all regional problems, we are calling on the sides involved in the conflict to display as much restraint as they can," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in an October 10 statement.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh commented on the possibility of unilateral Turkish military action on October 9, telling Al-Arabiyah television: "We know that the PKK harms Turkey and harms us in Iraq. It is a terrorist organization that kills civilians and military men. Therefore, we cooperate with Turkey. We do not think military force can solve the problem."
But for now, it appears Baghdad can do little but stress its desire for a negotiated settlement between Ankara and the PKK. Given the insecurity that continues to plague much of the country, Iraq cannot afford to take action against the PKK. This reality may be prompting Turkey to assume it will have a free hand in northern Iraq.How Far Will Turkey Go?
Moreover, it appears the September 28 agreement, which gives the parties six months to implement its terms, will be of little use. Without a hot-pursuit clause, Turkey would be in clear violation of Iraq's sovereignty should it cross the border. However, the agreement does hold up the validity of earlier agreements between the Iraqi and Turkish governments, namely a 1926 agreement, as well as a 1946 agreement and a 1989 agreement, not to mention Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's recent memorandum of understanding signed in August.
Though the texts of the earlier agreements were not immediately available, Ilnur Cevik wrote in "The New Anatolian" on October 1 that the 1926 and 1946 agreements did in fact allow for hot pursuit, but only to target smugglers and bandits. "Now, [any hot-pursuit clause] would be for PKK terrorists," he wrote. Moreover, he contended, "Turkey could launch hot-pursuit operations anytime, according to international rules, without any permission from Iraq. But this would have a very limited scope," meaning an incursion of limited size and distance.
As for the impact on Iraqi stability, any incursion would likely prompt the Kurdistan regional government to recall its peshmerga militia forces, now part of the Iraqi Army, from their current duties of assisting the U.S.-led coalition in securing north-central Iraq.
The Kurdish minister for peshmerga affairs, Jabbar Yawir, said on October 9 that the region will confront any incursion. "If Turkish troops were to violate the border of the Kurdistan region -- though I cannot fathom why Turkey would lead itself into such a whirlpool -- it will then be the Iraqi Army's duty to confront such a force, since the Kurdistan region is part of Iraq. The Iraqi Army will be backed by the Kurdistan peshmerga force and all the security forces, in order to protect the security they have established over the years."