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Iraq: Fighting In North Spells No End To PKK

Northern Iraq has seen new rounds of fighting in recent weeks, this time between the once-allied PUK and PKK. As the conflict has intensified, there are reports that thousands of Turkish troops have swept into the area to support the PUK. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at what caused the fighting and how it affects the delicate balance of power in the region.

Prague, 17 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The latest fighting in northern Iraq may mark an end to the long alliance between the Iraqi-Kurd Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Turkish-Kurd Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

And it may represent Turkey's best chance yet of eliminating the armed Turkish-Kurd group from rear bases in northern Iraq, which the PKK has used to battle for a Kurdish homeland in southern Anatolia.

But analysts say there is little reason to believe the developments spell an end to the PKK's military presence in the region. Instead, the group is fighting hard while positioning itself for a withdrawal if needed to bases in Iran. There the fighters would await new events in hopes of returning to northern Iraq as soon as possible.

The breakdown in the alliance between the PUK and PKK flared into open fighting some five months ago, surprising many observers who had grown used to thinking of the relationship as a stable part of the northern Iraq's balance of power.

For years, the PUK had counted on its military cooperation with the Turkish Kurd group to counterbalance the rival Iraqi-Kurd Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), backed by Ankara. In exchange, the PUK allowed the PKK to maintain mountain bases in its territory along the Iraqi-Iranian border.

But that alliance seemed definitively over last week as Turkish media reported that 10,000 Turkish soldiers have crossed the border to support the PUK since late December. Ankara immediately denied the reports but acknowledged that Turkey is providing what it called "technical support" to the Iraqi-Kurd group.

At the same time, the PKK is reported to have moved its fighters from bases along the Turkish-Iraq border where they used to battle with the KDP, to reinforce its bases in the PUK's territory.

Analysts say there are at least two possible reasons for the PUK-PKK fighting.

One theory is that PUK leader Jalal Talibani, who used to consider the PKK a strong ally, changed his assessment after Ankara captured its chief Abdullah Ocalan two years ago. Since then, Ocalan -- now under a death sentence for treason -- has ordered his men to stop fighting Ankara and withdraw outside Turkey's borders. According to the Turkish military, some 4,500 fighters have obeyed and retreated into northern Iraq and, less so, to Iran.

As the retreat of the PKK into northern Iraq has grown, so has a rapprochement between Talibani and Ankara. After a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit in Ankara last week, Talibani denied he has sought Turkish military support against the PKK but said he has asked for economic aid.

Alan Makovsky, a regional analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, says recent tensions between the PUK and Iran also have helped spoil Talibani's ties with the PKK.

The analyst says Iranian hardliners, who support the PKK, have backed Kurdish Islamists in Talibani's territory and pushed the PKK to aid them, souring at least temporarily the PUK's often good relations with Iran. Alan Makovsky says:

"The PUK has traditionally worked with Iran, even depended on Iran, but in recent times Iranian pressure has probably become more than Talibani wanted to bear. In particular, [there is anger over] Iranian support of Kurdish Islamists who control several towns in what was formerly Talibani's territory. I think we can see the PUK fight against the PKK as an effort to get out from under Iran's thumb. And therefore the [Talibani] tilt towards Turkey."

Makovsky says that Washington welcomes the shift but has played little part in causing it. Washington has long asked Talabani to observe a US-brokered accord in 1998 which seeks to unite the two northern Iraqi-Kurd factions and obliges both to prevent PKK activity in the region.

"I am sure the United States is more than pleased by any development that at one and the same time aligns the PUK and KDP more closely, aligns the PUK and Turkey more closely, and helps to corral the PKK. [But] I don't know that the United States actually had a role in initiating it or otherwise encouraging it."

The analyst predicts that Turkey, which worries that Washington's policy of uniting the Iraqi Kurds might lead to an independent state, will now assist both the KDP and PUK while still working to keep them divided. Makovsky says:

"Turkey traditionally does not want the two [Iraqi-Kurd] parties to be too close, although they have formally supported and sponsored the [U.S.-backed] process which is dedicated to bringing the parties together...[the Turks] have wanted [KDP leader Masoud] Barzani and Talibani to be at peace but not to be unified and I think that is still what they will continue to encourage."

With both the PUK and KDP now aligned against the PKK, Turkey is widely expected to soon undertake a military offensive against the Turkish-Kurd group. It is a job Turkey's generals welcome. They have repeatedly vowed to fight the PKK until, in their words, every last terrorist is neutralized.

But few analysts expect that a Turkish offensive -- which could begin in earnest in spring -- would conclusively smash the PKK. The group's mountain redoubts are strong and the back door remains open to Iran. Makovsky says:

"[The Iranians] have been strongly supportive of the PKK fighters and for years they have let the PKK use Iran as a safety valve and I think if the PKK fighters are able to escape into Iran, then Iran, to say the least, will not block the border. The PKK in northern Iraq is in large part under Iranian sponsorship and their sponsors will have to welcome them back."

Ankara and Washington charge Iran with allowing the PKK to maintain bases there. Tehran, which is seeking stronger economic ties with Ankara, denies it.

That means that the PKK's fighters, now in self-imposed exile outside Turkey, are still far from finished as a player in the region's complicated political rivalries.

The next months will see whether Turkey can push the PKK beyond northern Iraq and, if so, how much and who in Iran wants to give them refuge.

And they will see how long the current realignment in northern Iraq's ever-changing politics keeps them out of a region they long ago have come to regard as their second home.