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Iraq: Turkish Incursion Threatens To Destabilize Domestic Situation

Turkish forces move into Iraq (AFP) Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has warned that Turkey's military operation against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) could destabilize the entire region.

While that is true, it is more likely that a prolonged operation could exacerbate tensions between the Kurdish region and Baghdad and lead to a deterioration in Iraq's domestic security situation.

Turkey's incursion has gained cautious support from the international community. The United States, United Kingdom, Russia, and Germany have urged that Turkey exercise extreme caution and complete the operations as quickly as possible.

While Western states say they prefer to see a diplomatic resolution to the dispute, none have condemned the incursion, which is expected to last another 10 days.

But some observers have warned that a protracted military operation could see clashes between Iraq's Kurdish peshmerga forces and the Turkish military. Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i said on February 25 that the longer Turkish forces remain inside Iraq, the greater the chance that a clash could take place. "We need to avoid this at any cost. This has very serious consequences even if this happens by accident," Reuters quoted him as saying.

No Longer Peaceful North

One of the most pressing concerns is that a ground incursion could force mass displacement as villagers flee their homes along the Turkish border for areas farther south. Iraq's Kurdish region is already overflowing with displaced people who have left homes in Mosul, Baghdad, and other "insurgent hotbed" areas for the relative tranquility of the north.

Kurdish villagers inside the region began to flee in August 2007 after both Turkey and Iran began shelling border areas. At the time, Foreign Minister Zebari said hundreds of families were forced to leave their homes. The influx of displaced people has further burdened the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) as it tries to house, feed, and provide aid for them. The situation also brings enormous social strains as cities try to cope with the influx of people and their demands for housing and jobs.

Businessmen in the northern Kurdish governorate of Dahuk told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on February 25 that they are worried that the incursion will damage trade between the KRG-administered areas and Turkey. According to media reports, the border area remains open for the time being.

Some 80 percent of foreign investment in Iraq's Kurdish region comes from Turkey, and a protracted military operation would also ultimately damage Turkish interests. In Dahuk, the seven largest infrastructure and investment projects are being built by Turkish construction companies, "The New York Times" reported on November 7. Turkish ventures include hotels, an overpass, a museum, and housing projects.

Raising Tensions In Kirkuk

The incursion could also further strain tensions in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which lies just outside the Kurdish autonomous area. Kirkuk's Turkoman population is largely aligned with the Turkish government. Turkomans, who are ethnic Turks, rely on Turkey's patronage and support in their struggle against Iraq's Kurds for control over Kirkuk. Both groups believe Kirkuk is historically theirs.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Arabs, many of whom were moved to Kirkuk under Saddam Hussein's 1980s Arabization campaign, view Kirkuk as inherently Iraqi, not Kurdish, and they stand firmly opposed to the governorate's inclusion in the Kurdish region. The battle over Kirkuk has put the Kurds at a real disadvantage vis-a-vis their Arab and Turkoman brethren, with the latter two groups viewing Kurdish designs on Kirkuk as greedy, and ultimately tied to the issue of oil.

A referendum on the status of Kirkuk was slated to be held in December. When the referendum was delayed, Kurdish leaders saw it as an affront to their "legitimate rights."

No Help From Baghdad

The Turkish incursion also threatens to strain relations between the KRG and Baghdad. Kamal Kirkuki, deputy speaker of the Kurdish parliament, told Al-Sharqiyah television on February 24 that the Kurds "believe Turkey's aims go beyond what is said in the Turkish media." Kirkuki expressed frustration with the central government, saying Baghdad should have pressed the issue at the United Nations. Instead, the central government "did not move," he said. Assessing the reasons why, he said the Iraqi position is weak with regards to Turkey, and Baghdad could probably not convince Turkey to change its course.

Regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani also criticized Baghdad in a February 24 press briefing in Irbil. Commenting on Turkey's bombing of civilian infrastructure, Barzani said: "We believe this demonstrates that despite its stated aims, Turkey is targeting the [Iraqi] Kurdistan region itself. I am surprised by Baghdad's weak response to this clear violation of Iraq's sovereignty."

Indeed, Baghdad has aligned with the Turkish, U.S., and European position that the PKK is a terrorist organization. As such, it has reportedly coordinated with the United States and Turkey on the current operation. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel told the press on February 22, "There's an ongoing dialogue between Iraqis and leaders in Turkey about how to best confront the threat of the PKK." He said the U.S. and the Iraqi governments were notified simultaneously about the Turkish military operation. "We urge [Turkey] to work directly also with the Iraqis, including Kurdish government officials, in determining how best to address the threat of the PKK," he added.

Iraq's leaders, including Kurdish leaders in the central government, have thus far adopted a pragmatic approach to dealing with the Turkey-PKK issue. A statement posted to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry's website on February 22 said Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi summoned the Turkish charge d'affaires in Baghdad to express the government's concerns that a "military buildup on the border...could lead to a deterioration of the security situation in the region and affect the stability [in Iraq], and that any military action on the border by the Turkish Army will be intruding" on Iraq's national sovereignty.

Meanwhile, President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, last week accepted an invitation by Turkish President Abdullah Gul to visit Turkey. The visit is expected to take place in April.

For the time being, it appears that the situation will remain stable as long as Turkey adheres to its stated goals, namely to carry out a limited operation targeting the PKK. Should the Turkish Army venture farther south, stability could be affected to a greater degree. If that happens, Turkey may also be subjected to harsh criticism from the international community. But for now, Turkey appears to have the green light from Baghdad and the international community to rein in the PKK.

Iraq In Transition

Iraq In Transition

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