Ankara and the leader of a major Iraqi-Kurdish faction are engaging in an increasingly acrimonious war of words over what direction Iraq should go, should the U.S. oust Saddam Hussein from power. As RFE/RL reports, the hostile exchanges are in sharp contrast to the good relations the two parties enjoyed a year ago and reflect their deep differences over what they want from a post-Saddam Iraq.
Prague, 29 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Over the past year, relations between Turkey and one of the two key Iraqi-Kurd factions, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), have degenerated from cooperation to open hostility.
The extent of the change became clear this month as Turkey and the KDP engaged in a highly public war of words in which both sides spoke of the possibility of armed conflict between them.
The verbal battle saw Turkey warning the KDP over what it sees as increasing efforts by the group's leader, Mas'ud Barzani, to give northern Iraq the trappings of statehood. Those efforts include Barzani's recent proposal of a draft constitution for a post-Saddam Iraq which would grant extensive autonomy to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Similarly, Barzani has proposed that within the federation, Iraqi Kurdistan would have the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as its capital and the right to its own parliament, presidency, and flag.
Those suggestions sparked a sharp statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry last week that "the political parties in northern Iraq must not forget the need to carefully avoid any assertions about the future of the country." That was a diplomatic signal that Ankara would not tolerate anything that looked like too much Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq -- something Ankara fears could incite its own restive Kurdish minority to seek the same.
And, just in case Barzani did not understand the warning, Turkey's Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu added one of his own. He told reporters that "Turkey considers northern Iraq to be under its direct care and Ankara would not tolerate the region being subjugated to the interests of others."
Cakmakoglu also said that Turkey has not given up its own territorial claims to the area. He said northern Iraq was "forcibly separated" from Turkey by the Western powers that partitioned the Ottoman Empire and that because of the presence of a Turkic-speaking Turkoman population there, he considered the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul to be "Turkish soil."
The defense minister's statements got an angry reception from the KDP, which warned Ankara that any Turkish intervention in northern Iraq would be resisted by force. The KDP -- whose territory borders Turkey -- said that the Turks "will see that we are ready to sacrifice ourselves and they will see we are ready to make this land a graveyard for the attackers."
The tit-for-tat threats between Ankara and the KDP are in sharp contrast to what appeared to be a cooperative relationship between them just a little over a year ago. That relationship was founded on Turkey's enlisting the KDP's help in destroying bases in northern Iraq used by the now-defunct Turkish-Kurd guerrilla movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ankara and the KDP also engaged in an extensive cross-border trade in smuggled Iraqi oil that helped enrich the KDP and strengthen it in its struggles with its rival Iraqi-Kurd faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani.
But observers say that the alliance now has largely collapsed in the wake of Turkey's capture of PKK head Abdullah Ocalan in early 1999 and the successful clearing of most of the PKK bases in northern Iraq. Only the smuggling of Iraqi oil continues as before, because it is in the economic interest of both sides.
Mustafa Osman is a political analyst in London and an expert on Kurdish affairs. He says that over the past 10 years, Ankara was willing to close its eyes to political developments in northern Iraq because it was more interested in security issues, namely destroying the PKK. Now, with its battle with the PKK won, Ankara's attention has again focused on politics.
"During the last 10 years, [the Turks] have been treating this Kurdish issue as a security issue only, not as a political issue, not as an issue of a people who have aspirations and so on. That's why they were always trying to utilize the [Iraqi] Kurds for their purposes against the PKK, which was a threat to them."
He continues: "Now, in the last two years, of course, the PKK threat is no longer there and the Turks have changed. And they started grumbling about autonomy, about the [Iraqi Kurds'] aspirations, about a signpost which is at the border saying 'Welcome to Kurdistan,' about a flag, whatever -- all these things which were there before. But they never complained much because they needed the [Iraqi] Kurds for their security purposes."
Osman also says that during the past decade, the KDP cooperated with Ankara against the PKK because the Turkish-Kurd guerrillas equally represented a threat to the Iraqi Kurd faction's control over its own territory. But the analyst says that now Barzani fears Ankara will try to make a deal with Washington to curb the Iraqi Kurds' aspirations as the price of cooperating in any military campaign against Baghdad.
"Turkey has already raised this with the Americans. They have told the Americans that they don't want to see any Kurdish entity in Iraqi Kurdistan, even autonomy -- whatever -- and, of course, that is one of the reasons Barzani is afraid [the Turks might try to make a deal with Washington in exchange for cooperation]."
Many Turkish analysts agree that Barzani's federalist aspirations are a major concern for Ankara. Sami Kohen, a columnist for the Turkish daily "Milliyet," wrote recently that "Barzani's draft of a federal -- practically independent -- status for Iraqi Kurdistan...has deeply disturbed Turkish officials." He added, "Whether or not the United States attacks Iraq...[northern Iraq] will continue to occupy Ankara."
Turkey, the two Iraqi Kurdish factions, and the United States have all pledged to respect Iraq's territorial integrity. But those assurances have done little to calm the mistrust between Turkey and Barzani as Washington seeks to build a coalition against Saddam.
Barzani registered some of his unease by not attending a meeting in Washington of leading Iraqi opposition figures earlier this month. Barzani was widely reported to have stayed away because he did not want to transit through Turkey, his usual route to Washington. U.S. officials said only that he did not attend due to what they called "logistical difficulties."
At the same time, Barzani has been hesitant to publicly commit to joining any military operation against Saddam, saying he first wants specific U.S. assurances for the safety of northern Iraq. He has not spelled out what those assurances should be, but many observers say they may not only be against an assault by Saddam's forces in the event of a war but also guarantees against any Turkish intervention in northern Iraq.
Barzani's position toward Turkey contrasts with that of rival Iraqi Kurd leader Talabani, who in recent months has developed closer relations with Ankara. Talabani has courted Turkey by moving against pockets of PKK fighters who fled into his area, which borders Iran, and by announcing that he would protect minority Turkomans in northern Iraq.
While Barzani stayed away from this month's Iraqi opposition meeting in Washington, and only sent a representative, Talabani attended in person and urged the U.S. to proceed with overthrowing Saddam. After the meeting he told reporters: "I explained to the United States officials here that the Iraqi opposition, Kurds included...have tens of thousands of armed people. These forces can liberate Iraq with the support of the U.S., with cooperation and coordination with American forces."
Talabani also said U.S. officials have promised that Turkey would not interfere in northern Iraq as a result of a U.S.-led campaign against Baghdad.
The Kurdish part of northern Iraq has been virtually autonomous for the last decade, protected from Iraqi forces by U.S. and British planes. It has been outside of Saddam's control since the Iraqi Kurds broke away from Baghdad at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.