Washington’s ongoing reluctance to rein in militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) activity in northern Iraq is raising the real possibility of a Turkish military incursion into northern Kurdish Iraq, which could produce the ominous scenario of Turkish troops facing not only Kurdish but also U.S. forces. On April 10 Ankara urged Baghdad to take “urgent” measures against the rebels, who Turkey maintains move freely in the region as they acquire weaponry for cross-border attacks into Turkish territory (Cumhuriyet, April 10).
On April 12, during his first press conference since becoming chief of the Turkish General Staff, Yasar Buyukanit told reporters, “If you ask me whether a cross-border operation is needed, yes it is needed. It would be useful. If the armed forces are given this mission, they are strong enough to carry out such operations.” But, he added, “There is a need for a military operation against the PKK terrorist organization in the north of Iraq, but a governmental decision is required for that” (Anadolu Ajansi, April 12). Buyukanit then said, “Large-scale operations are currently under way in several regions,” remarking that 10 soldiers and 29 PKK guerrillas have already died this month. Lest his intent be unclear, Buyukanit concluded, “We had intelligence that [the] terrorist organization might intensify its activities as of May.” The soldiers died in clashes in Bitlis, Bingol, and Sirnak (Sabah, April 9). Buyukanit noted that a Turkish offensive would coincide with the spring thaw, when the PKK usually increases its attacks inside Turkey because mountain passes become easier to traverse.
Buyukanit’s comments were a response to a provocative interview that Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masud Barzani gave to al-Arabiya television three days earlier. Barzani had remarked, “Kirkuk is an Iraqi city with a Kurdish identity, historically and geographically. All the facts establish that Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan…Turkey is not allowed to intervene in the Kirkuk issue and if it does, we will interfere in Diyarbakir’s issues and other cities in Turkey.” Ankara took this threat seriously, as Diyarbekir is the largest city in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated southeast. The day after Barzani spoke, his comments were the main item on the agenda on a meeting of Turkey’s powerful National Security Council (Milliyet, April 11).
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry has also been preparing the diplomatic groundwork for possible military operations. The day of the Barzani interview Turkey’s Special Representative to Iraq, Oguz Celikkol, flew to Washington carrying documents acquired by Turkish intelligence purportedly showing that Barzani gave $500,000 to former Iraqi justice minister Hashim El Shebli and bribed other Iraqi officials to draft new laws offering compensation to ethnic Arabs to depart Kirkuk (Hurriyet, April 11).
The PKK issue is deeply intertwined with the future status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, where the Turkish government alleges that Kurdish ethnic cleansing policies have diminished the local Turkmen and Arab populations as the Kurdish Regional Government seeks to alter the city’s demography ahead of a proposed referendum on the future of the city and its surrounding territory.
Kirkuk and its surrounding territory contain nearly 40% percent of Iraq’s estimated oil reserves. During an April 11 conference on Iraq in Washington, a senior Iraqi Kurdish official insisted that the Kirkuk referendum would be held before December, as stipulated by the Iraqi constitution, but a U.S. State Department official countered that Washington had no position on a specific date for the poll (Turkish Daily News, April 12).
Massive amounts of money are being thrown at the issue. The report follows a March article in Baghdad’s Shia Al-Bianh al-Jadidah newspaper that the Saudi government offered Barzani and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Borham Saleh $2 billion to freeze demands to have Kirkuk as the capital of Kurdistan for a decade. According to an Iraqi government source, requesting anonymity, both Barzani and Saleh resisted the Saudi offer to give up the “Kurds’ historical rights to the city” (Deutsche-Presse Agentur, April 3).
Unlike the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ankara is also taking steps to justify any armed incursion under international law. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Bilman said on April 11 that if Baghdad did not take concrete steps against the PKK, then Turkey could invoke its right to self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter (Turkish Daily News, April 12).
Washington has been scrambling to defuse the crisis. Two days after Bilman made his comments, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Sean McCormack said, “Now, Turkey faces a real threat from the PKK,” adding, “It’s a terrorist organization that has killed innocent Turkish citizens, and it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with. The way we suggest it be dealt with is to have the Iraqis and Turkish Governments working together to try to eliminate this threat and we have lent our good offices to that effort in the form of retired General Joe Ralston, former SACEUR… the focus should be on trying to resolve this in a cooperative way, in a joint way, rather than to resort to unilateral actions” (Aksam, April 13).
Aside from straining relations with Washington, the drift toward armed conflict has the potential to impact Turkish efforts to join the European Union. The same day that McCormack spoke, the European Commission executive’s spokeswoman on enlargement, Krisztina Nagy, told reporters, “Our hope and the interest of all involved is that possible differences are dealt with in a peaceful and constructive manner…The stability of Iraq is in our common interest and the EU recognizes the constructive role Turkey plays in the area, and in this context it is important that Turkey continues to play such a constructive role” (Dunya, April 13).
Hopefully Turkey’s warnings will finally galvanize the Bush administration into action, at the very least into pressuring Baghdad to use its influence to lessen tensions. Otherwise Iraq could face a Turkish “surge” into its northern territories that could spread to the territory of NATO’s only Muslim member, with ominous consequences not only for the alliance, but the EU as well, not to mentioned the “stretched” U.S. forces in Iraq.