And this is not the first time Turkey has threatened to cross into Iraq. In July, hawkish statements from Turkish lawmakers coupled with the movement of thousands of Turkish troops toward the Iraqi border suggested that a major military operation was brewing. However, many believed that the threatening rhetoric was just bluster in the run-up to the Turkish general elections.
Turkey has long called on the U.S. and the Iraqi governments to rein in the PKK, which Ankara accuses of conducting cross-border attacks against Turkish positions. But Turkish patience seems to be running out and an invasion of northern Iraq seems more imminent than ever, unless the United States and Iraq move against the PKK. But Iraq may not be able to act against the PKK, while the United States may not be in a position to.
Iraq Has Little Room To Maneuver
Responding to the Turkish outcry over the attack, a steady stream of Iraqi leaders denounced the PKK attack and vowed to shut down the group's operations in northern Iraq. According to the state-run Anatolia News Agency, Turkey has requested that Iraq shut down PKK camps, extradite the group's leaders, and restrict the group's movements. The Baghdad government has in the past pledged to move against the group, but it has thus far failed to deliver. It's an open question whether Iraq is even capable of curbing the group's activities.
On October 23, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to close the PKK's offices in Iraq. This may be a moot point, since it is unknown if the PKK actually has any offices in Iraq. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said the next day that there are not even any PKK members in Iraq's cities, just the estimated 3,000 fighters holed up in the rugged Qandil Mountains along the border.
Moreover, Iraq's nascent and fractured military seems unlikely to be able to dislodge the PKK from their mountain stronghold. During the 1990s, the Turkish military conducted four major military operations in northern Iraq against the PKK. Although it succeeded in killing a large number of PKK fighters, it ultimately failed to root it out. It seems unlikely that the Iraqi military could accomplish what the better-trained and -equipped Turkish Army failed to achieve.
For their part, the Iraqi Kurds have sent mixed messages to Turkey, vacillating between appeasement and scorn. During a news conference on October 23, Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani urged the PKK to abide by the cease-fire -- which it declared on October 22 -- in an effort to avoid a Turkish invasion and to resolve the crisis with Turkey peacefully.
At an October 21 joint news conference with Iraqi President Talabani, Barzani warned Turkey that Iraq's Kurds would defend themselves against an attack by anyone. Indeed, many Kurds believe that Turkey is using the threat of the PKK as a pretext to invade and occupy Iraq's Kurdish region. Moreover, the PKK remains a valuable bargaining chip for Iraq's Kurds to extract maximum concessions from Turkey, such as greater Kurdish autonomy, in exchange for cracking down on the group.
U.S. In Difficult Position
The October 21 ambush has also increased pressure considerably on the United States to act more decisively against the PKK. However, the issue of sovereignty will play a significant role in how Washington responds to Turkey's demands.
While the PKK is considered by the United States to be a terrorist group -- the State Department has placed it on its list of terrorist organizations -- it cannot move troops into northern Iraq without approval from the Baghdad government, as well as from the Kurdistan regional government (KRG). The KRG may balk at this request and could perceive a major U.S. military operation in the semi-autonomous region as an affront to its sovereignty. And this perceived slight could have far-reaching ramifications.
The Kurds, more than any other group in Iraq, have been one of the United States' most stalwart supporters since the overthrow of the former regime. In the turbulent world of Iraqi politics, where alliances are constantly shifting, the United States can ill afford to alienate them. The Kurdish Alliance, with 53 seats in Iraq's 275-seat parliament, has considerable political muscle; it is the second-largest political bloc behind the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance.
Angering the Kurds may, in turn, convince them to distance themselves from al-Maliki's already beleaguered government, which has been weakened by defections and resignations. If the Kurdish Alliance were to withdraw from or boycott al-Maliki's coalition government, it would further cripple the political process and the government's ability to work toward national reconciliation.
Finally, the United States may not have sufficient resources to move against the PKK in any case. With U.S. forces currently involved in major campaigns against Sunni insurgents, Shi'ite militias, and Al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters throughout Iraq, its resources would be stretched dangerously thin if it opened another front against the PKK in the north.