In the midst of rising tensions between the Turkish and Iraqi governments over the presence of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in northern Iraq, the PKK has managed to expand to other parts of Iraq outside of their traditional strongholds in the northern mountains. It seems that the PKK has taken advantage of the lax security in the capital city of Baghdad and government distraction to open the “Ocalan Culture Center,” a PKK contact bureau, just steps away from the Turkish Embassy. Although Iraq has pledged that it will do what it can to crack down on the presence of PKK fighters in Iraq, the Ocalan Culture Center was opened with the approval of local government authorities, according to documents plastered on the walls of the center (Turkish Daily News, July 14). This comes despite the fact that the PKK is ostensibly an outlawed organization in Iraq.
The PKK is also designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Turkey. Turkish intelligence estimates that there are between 4,000 to 5,000 PKK fighters in the mountainous border region in northern Iraq. The PKK began infiltrating back into Iraq from Turkey after it called off its unilateral cease-fire in the summer of 2004. The PKK already has a contact bureau in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
The Ocalan Culture Center, named for the PKK’s jailed founder Abdullah Ocalan, opened in the Vaziriye quarter of Baghdad, one of the busiest neighborhoods in Iraq, 500 meters away from the Turkish Embassy. The center will be used for political activities, to facilitate international contacts with PKK members and to monitor and regulate the treatment of injured PKK fighters. Turkish officials fear that it will also be used to plan and facilitate terrorist operations around the border area and in Turkey (Cihan News Agency, July 12). Turkish officials officially opposed the opening of the Ocalan Culture Center in Baghdad. Diplomatic sources stated that Turkey delivered a note via the Turkish Embassy to the Iraqi government demanding the closure of the contact office, citing Iraq’s pledges that it would not allow Iraq to be a sanctuary for terrorist organizations (Anatolia News Agency, July 20).
Although the PKK’s presence in Iraq is a well known fact, the opening of the Ocalan Culture Center on the heels of pledges by the Iraqi government to tackle PKK activity in their country raises serious questions regarding the Iraqi government’s ability and willingness to move against the PKK (Cihan News Agency, July 20).