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Iraq Report: October 26, 2007

Attacks On Turkish Forces Increase Pressure To Act Against PKK

By Sumedha Senanayake

Turkish troops may go into Iraq after the PKK yet again

October 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On October 21, a group of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters entered Turkey from Iraq and killed 12 Turkish soldiers in the Turkish border town of Daglica. The incident enraged Ankara and Turks across the country took to the streets demanding action.

This follows the Turkish parliament's decision on October 17 authorizing the military to launch operations into northern Iraq in an effort to drive PKK fighters out of their mountain bases.

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.

Iraq's Kurds Hold Key To Turkey's Dilemma

By Charles Recknagel

The Iraqi-Turkish border region features formidable terrain

October 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Kurds, threatened with a military incursion by Turkey, find themselves in a pivotal -- and ironic -- position as Ankara and Washington search for ways to end attacks by Turkish Kurdish militants holed up in semi-autonomous northern Iraq.

In recent days, Turkey has deployed some 100,000 troops to the border areas of Kurdish-administered northern Iraq -- proof that Ankara is determined to force the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants out of its strongholds on the other side. At the same time, Turkey says it still wants a diplomatic solution to a crisis which has seen scores of Turkish troops killed in cross-border raids by PKK forces.

Ankara's diplomatic efforts focus on pressing Iraq's Kurdistan regional government (KRG) to take action against the PKK. But negotiations are not easy. To send Iraqi Kurdish fighters, the peshmerga, against the PKK -- possibly with the support of U.S. air power -- Iraqi Kurds will demand a high price from Ankara.

How high a price is the million-dollar question.

Ankara has never, and still does not, recognize the KRG and refuses to meet with its representatives in any official capacity. That reflects Ankara's fear that any international respect shown to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region would only embolden Turkey's own Kurdish minority to seek similar home-rule status.

As Ankara and Washington look for solutions from the Iraqi Kurdish leaders -- who are among the strongest supporters of the United States in Iraq -- those same leaders see the crisis as presenting them with some valuable bargaining power. The target for any bargain is Turkey. The price is what Ankara might give in exchange for Iraqi Kurds moving against the PKK.

U.S. Pressure On Iraqi Kurds

In its diplomatic push, Turkey has the support of Washington. The U.S. government -- which lists the PKK as a terrorist organization -- is also putting pressure on the Iraqi Kurds to push the PKK out. "The United States is determined to work with our allies in Iraq and to work with our allies in Turkey to try and deal with what is a very difficult situation of terrorism from a fairly remote part of northern Iraq," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on October 23. "And it requires information sharing, it requires a great deal of coordination."

But so far, the U.S. pressure on the Iraqi Kurds has not yielded much result. The State Department's senior Iraq adviser, David Satterfield, suggested on October 23 that Washington wants to see Iraq's Kurdish leaders do more. "We are not pleased with the lack of action," he told reporters in the U.S. capital, without specifying what kind of action he meant.

In public, Turkey is bargaining solely through the Baghdad government. That was on display this week as the Turkish foreign minister, Ali Babacan, visited Baghdad. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he assured Babacan that Iraq "will not allow any party or any group, including the PKK, to poison our bilateral relations. And also I reassured [Babacan] that the Iraqi government will actively help Turkey to overcome this menace."

But the fact that Zebari is also a top official of one of the dominant Iraqi Kurdish parties may belie the appearance that this is entirely a state-to-state affair. Zebari is from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), whose support base is the region that abuts the Turkish border. Both the KDP, and its partner in the KRG, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have strong militias that are nominally part of Iraq's army but ultimately answer to the Kurdish parties.

Turkish tanks massing on the border (AFP)

Sami Shoresh, a former KRG minister, says the Iraqi Kurds are ready to discuss with Ankara alternative solutions to a Turkish invasion. But only if Ankara meets certain conditions. "The Kurds of Iraq have said that if the Turkish government announces a peaceful solution for the situation of the PKK inside Iraqi Kurdistan, and if the PKK refuses this political solution, then at that time the Kurds would be ready to think with the Americans, with the Iraqi government, with the Turkish government, about another kind of solution," he says.

This position recognizes that the PKK have had bases in Iraq since the 1980s and -- even though both the KDP and PUK have periodically fought with the PKK in shifting alliances since then -- there is some popular sympathy in northern Iraq for Turkish Kurd separatists.

But would Turkey offering a political solution to the PKK really be enough? Some independent observers with close ties to the KRG say privately that the price the Iraqi Kurds want is much higher. They say it could include Ankara formally recognizing the Kurdish-administered north of Iraq as part of the federal state of Iraq.

The observers say the recognition demands would at a minimum include accepting the KRG's representatives as officials. They might also include withdrawing Turkish opposition to including oil-rich Kirkuk as part of the Kurdish self-rule region. The future status and ethnic make-up of Kirkuk is hotly contested between Iraqi Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans -- a Turkic-speaking minority community whose claims are backed by Ankara.

Limited Turkish Leverage

As Turkey pursues diplomacy on the Iraqi side of the border, but threatens invasion by massing its forces on the Turkish side, does it have any other ways to step up pressure on the Iraqi Kurds to act? In the past, one such lever might have been economic action. Despite Turkey's nonrecognition of the Iraqi Kurdish area, cross-border trade is high and some 800 Turkish companies are working in the Kurdish-administered area.

Indeed, some of the area's largest construction projects -- funded in part by taxes on oil exports to Turkey -- have been completed by Turkish firms. They include the region's two airports, in Irbil and Al-Sulaymaniyah.

But former minister Shoresh says that the time when Turkey could simply isolate northern Iraq economically by closing the border is now long gone. "Until now, there is nothing in the way of economic pressure from Turkey and maybe this has a link with another matter, which is the fact the Kurds now have many airports and they have good links with the whole world and even if Turkey closes the [border] gate, yes, there will be bad effects on the Kurdish economy but not as bad as those worst effects which we experienced 10 years ago," he says.

If so, Turkey's options now are just two. Send its army -- which is NATO's second largest -- into Iraq despite Washington's opposition. Or negotiate the price for Iraqi-Kurd assistance.

Where the bargaining leads -- and whether it might yet end in Turkish military action -- is hard to predict. But over the coming days, and possibly weeks, intense behind-the-scenes negotiations appear to be more likely than a cross-border operation by the Turkish military.