Amid the escalating tension between Ankara and Baghdad over the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) staging guerrilla attacks into Turkey from their bases in northern Iraq, one international organization might prove to be an honest broker in defusing the situation through diplomatic means—the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of an OIC meeting in Jeddah, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told journalists that the Turkish parliament’s October 17 vote gave the government authority to target PKK terrorists in northern Iraq even as he emphasized that any potential military action would not be randomly directed. Babacan said, “We do have a problem with terrorism by the PKK killing people. Last month they killed 45 civilians and non-civilians. The PKK is based in northern Iraq. We tried to cooperate with the Iraqi authorities and the United States. Last Wednesday, the parliament gave the OK for the government to act when necessary to target terrorists, not the people of Iraq or territory or natural resources. If the U.S. and Iraq authority cannot act, we cannot sit and watch” (Anadolu Ajansi, October 22). While in Jeddah Babacan met with OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.
In raising the issue of PKK guerrilla incursions into Turkey Ankara has a distinct advantage, as OIC Secretary-General Ihsanoglu is himself Turkish. Ihsanoglu has repeatedly stated that the OIC not only has expressed a principled stand against terrorism on many occasions, but that Turkey has the right to defend itself. Babacan, discussing his OIC visit, said that Turkey expects solidarity and cooperation against terrorists.
The time is certainly right for OIC involvement, as recent events have hardened attitudes on both sides. After meeting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is Kurdish, in Baghdad Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said, “We are not going to be caught up in the PKK and Turkish war, but if the Kurdistan region is targeted, then we are going to defend our citizens (Arab News, October 22).
The Organization of Islamic Conference was established in 1969 and consists of 57 countries, ranging from Latin America’s Guyana to Indonesia in the east, and from Albania in the north to Mozambique in the south. With the exception of Iran, the United States maintains diplomatic relations with all OIC members.
The OIC has a long-standing interest in Iraq and there is a historical precedent for OIC mediation—within six months of the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, the OIC considered the possibility of sending peacekeeping troops. During its tenth summit conference in Putrajaya in October 2003 the OIC discussed a Pakistani proposal to send Muslim troops on a peacekeeping mission to Iraq, as the UN had earlier unanimously passed a resolution authorizing a multinational force in Iraq, but the proposal got nowhere, as many OIC members first wanted Iraq turned over to the control of United Nations peacekeeping forces.
Now however, the concept of OIC participation in pacifying Iraq now has influential support in Washington, as last December the blue-ribbon bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s Recommendation Three stated, “As a complement to the diplomatic offensive, and … the United States and the Iraqi government should support the holding of a conference or meeting in Baghdad of the Organization of the Islamic Conference or the Arab League both to assist the Iraqi government in promoting national reconciliation in Iraq and to reestablish their diplomatic presence in Iraq.”
Beyond providing a diplomatic forum to resolve Turkish-Iraqi tensions, any OIC peacekeeping undertaking would be a formidable operation, as Iraq shares its 2,268 miles of border with six countries. Saudi Arabia has a 500-mile border with Iraq, Iran 906 miles, 375 miles with Syria, Jordan 110 miles, Turkey 220 miles, and Kuwait 120 miles of common frontier. While Iraq’s neighbors undoubtedly harbor aspirations to protect their compatriots, the OIC contains an additional 51 member states, and a consensus could see Malian, Bangladeshi, Angolan, and Malaysian troops, to name but a few OIC members, dispatched to Iraq under an OIC mandate, none of whom have a direct interest in the conflict.
For nearly a year the OIC leadership has repeatedly expressed its willingness to assist in Iraq. During an interview last December Ihsanoglu stated, “As for Iraq, it looks as if the situation were out of control . . . we, in the OIC, tried hard and we’re still trying hard to contribute to the solution to the crisis. The modalities of this [peacekeeping] operation have not been thought through. But I am sure that some OIC countries would be interested in helping Iraqis out of their difficulties. Of course, there would be countries that are acceptable to both the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people. We have to admit without the cooperation of Iraq’s neighbors and without the cooperation of some international powers, we cannot reach a comprehensive and peaceful solution in Iraq” (Arab News, December 6, 2006).
While in Jeddah Babacan said that that the OIC will have a more crucial role to play in the future regarding issues facing Islamic countries. A potential solution to the escalating Turkish-Iraqi crisis is at hand; all that is lacking is the political will to use it.