Analysis: U.S. and Turkey Differ Over Kurds

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WASHINGTON, March 23 (UPI) — In the aftermath of what has become known as the First Gulf War Iraq’s Kurdish minority established an autonomous enclave in Northern Iraq. Many Kurds would like to use the upheaval of the Second Gulf War to go whole hog and create a breakaway independent Kurdish state.

Kurdish leaders deny that they harbor such aspirations, but their denials are regarded with a generous dose of skepticism, especially by the government of neighboring Turkey.


The idea that Iraq’s four million Kurds can put the clock back to the 12th century or beyond and set up a new Kurdistan on Turkey’s doorstep gives Ankara the jitters. The Turks fear that it could rekindle separatist passions among Turkey’s own 7 million-10 million strong Kurdish minority.

Which is why the only Islamic member of NATO was prepared to put its longstanding relationship with Washington in jeopardy by massing troops on the Turkey-Iraq border poised to go into Northern Iraq.

There were even unconfirmed reports that Turkey, brushing aside strong U.S. objections, has already begun moving its forces into the Kurdish enclave. This was denied in Ankara Saturday by Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who said the issue was still under discussion with U.S. officials. “We will enter when and if conditions require it,” Gul declared.

Even so, it is widely accepted that between Friday and Saturday the Turks sent in around 1,500 troops into northern Iraq to join the 5,000 already based there with the consent of the Kurdish authorities to guard the approaches to Turkey, and to provide security for friendly Kurdish groups.

Ankara officials have talked of deploying 40,000 troops, so the small force mentioned in the reports is seen by analysts as a signal to Washington that no amount of talking is going to deter Turkey’ from stationing troops in Kurdish territory.

The issue undermined Washington’s efforts to use Turkey as a staging area for the purpose of opening a northern front in Iraq — and even of using Turkish air space for its raids on Baghdad. The haggling over Washington’s request to deploy 63,000 U.S. troops went back and forth for six weeks, sweetened by the offer of an aid package which grew — in stages as the Turks dug in their heels — to $15 billion.

On March 1, with more than 24 cargo ships waiting in the Bosphorus to unload the tanks, vehicles and other equipment belonging to the U.S. Fourth Infantry Division, the Turkish parliament, dominated by the pro-Islamic Justice and Action party, voted against the deal.

The Turkish government had sought from Washington — and obtained — assurances that Iraq’s integrity would be preserved when the war ended and Iraq’s oil resource would be shared by “all the people.” Preserving Iraq’s integrity is political lingo for preventing the Kurds from acquiring independence, and from taking over the rich oil fields in the north.

But senior Turkish sources admit that they were not sure they could trust Washington to honor its commitment. One official told The Washington Post Friday, there was “a natural skepticism about whether events will turn out the way the United States is planning them to unfold. We want to be there when things go wrong, if they do.”

The fact that the Bush administration last week appointed a separate civilian administrator for the Kurdish area, to serve during the immediate post-Saddam period, feeds directly into Turkish suspicions that Washington may not be averse to seeing Iraq carved into separate ethnic territories.

Statements by some Kurdish leaders about taking control of the oil fields, and images of Kurdish protesters burning Turkish flags don’t help either.

There are obvious risks to Ankara in defying Washington, and potentially serious consequences to the North Atlantic alliance. The circumstances were different, but the U.S.-led liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban is not so far off that the Turks would not recall Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly warning the Northern Alliance forces to halt their advance outside Kabul so that a more representative coalition of Afghan ethnic groups, including the majority Pashtun group, could be cobbled together to take over the city.

There was more than a hint of dire consequences in Powell’s admonitions, but the Northern Alliance just careened straight on into the city.

The United States returns the compliment by distrusting Turkish intentions. A senior European official in Washington said Friday, “Letting the Turks into northern Iraq is like opening the door to let the fox get among the chickens. There’s bound to be trouble sooner or later.”

The Kurdish enclave is actually two enclaves respectively run by the two main ethnic groups, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democrtic Party. Once bitter rivals, they now share a parliament and an administration. But below the surface the old enmity still simmers. One of the few things that unites them is their opposition to 40,000 Turkish troops settling down for a long stay in their midst.

There is a widespread conviction that the Turks will quit northern Iraq much more slowly than they enter it; and U.S. officials fear that the situation could lead to a wider war between the Kurds and the Turks that could go on longer than the war in Iraq itself.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.