Turkey’s Mounting Concerns over PKK Incursions from Northern Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 28

There have been ongoing tensions between Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish authorities over Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists operating out of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) territory. In a recent trip to the United States after meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said that he expected Iraq and the United States to do more to eliminate the PKK presence in northern Iraq. He stated that he did not understand why “terrorists are being sheltered” in an area that is not enemy territory (Turkish Daily News, July 8). Iraqi Kurds have acknowledged Turkey’s concerns regarding the PKK, but always qualify the sentiment by stressing that Iraqi national security has greater priority and Iraq has had limited resources to deal with all of its regional security threats. In this latest meeting, Zebari promised that Iraq would extradite terrorists under KRG custody to Turkey and facilitate the extradition of PKK fighters under coalition custody. Gul reiterated his country’s demand for the extradition of al-Qaeda members in Iraq responsible for bomb attacks in Turkey (Anatolia, July 3).

Meanwhile, on the ground, Turkish news sources reported that a PKK front organization called the “Ocalan Culture Center” has opened in Baghdad very close to the Turkish Embassy. Turkish authorities allege that the Ocalan Culture Center is used as an office for political propaganda and contacts with PKK members (The Journal of Turkish Weekly, July 13). Additionally, Turkish troops recently killed three PKK militants as they tried to infiltrate Turkey from a rugged border area in northern Iraq. The militants opened fire on Turkish soldiers in Cukurca, a town in the southeastern region of Hakkari (The New Anatolian, July 11). Since then, 13 Turkish soldiers have been killed by PKK gunmen in southeastern Turkey.

Turkey has signaled it will step up its fight against Kurdish rebels based in Iraq. After the attacks last week, the Turkish Council of Ministers directed the Turkish General Staff to plan and prepare for a possible cross-border operation into northern Iraq. The General Staff has already initiated the planning work (NTV Television, July 18). The Turkish government announced last year that it would not rule out the possibility of cross-border operations if damage was inflicted on Turkey from staging posts in Iraq (Cihan News Agency, July 14). Iraqi President Jalal Talabani warned the Turkish government that previous agreements signed during Saddam Hussein’s rule that allowed Turkey to carry out cross-border operations into Iraqi territory were not valid. Zebari, during a trip to Greece, warned, “There is no doubt developments are critical in our region…All countries must respect [Iraq’s] sovereignty, and no one must intervene in other countries” (Cihan News Agency, July 14).

Despite renewed efforts at Turkish-Iraqi cooperation, these recent events have highlighted a key source of tension between the Turkish, Iraqi and Kurdish governments. Turkey does not believe it will successfully end PKK terrorism without driving them out of northern Iraq, and Ankara is growing increasingly impatient with Iraqi inaction. Iraqi and Kurdish regional officials are trying to balance their desire for greater economic and political ties with Turkey and their need to stop any Turkish military interference in their territory. KRG officials are walking a fine line to lure Turkish investment and dispel any political threat Turkey may feel from a Kurdish regional power along their border. The PKK is their trump card; they promise cooperation and deliver only minimally to keep Turkey at bay. This strategy, however, may be losing steam as Turkey is quickly catching on that the KRG will not deliver as promised on the PKK issue.