Analysis: The Kurdish-Turkish Crisis

Turkey is pressing the United States for guarantees to block a Kurdish federal entity in northern Iraq.

Analysis: The Kurdish-Turkish Crisis

Turkey is pressing the United States for guarantees to block a Kurdish federal entity in northern Iraq.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

With war against Iraq on the horizon and negotiations continuing between Washington and Ankara to allow US troops to open a northern front from Turkey, tension between Kurds and Turks is on the rise.

Iraqi Kurds have deep-seated historical suspicions of Turkey's intentions towards them and fear it wants to prevent them securing federal status in a post-Saddam Iraq - perhaps even to rob them of the gains they have made in 12 years of virtual autonomy.

Ankara says its policy towards its southern neighbour is based merely on its desire to prevent the disintegration of Iraq.

As details of the negotiations between Washington and Ankara have surfaced, Kurds have become more and more nervous. Turkey has set four main conditions for allowing up to 62,000 US troops to deploy on Turkish soil in advance of an invasion:

* Kurds must not be armed with heavy weapons, particularly anti-aircraft missiles. Ankara argues that the Kurds might eventually use these missiles against Turkish planes. It fears they might even end up in the hands of Turkey's own Kurdish rebels in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

* Immediately after the war, Kurdish fighters must be disarmed and integrated into the Iraqi army.

* The Kurds must not be given federal status.

* Iraqi Turkomans must be regarded as the equals of Kurds in any post-Saddam settlement.

Kurds believe these conditions are designed to put an end to their hopes of a federal Iraq after Saddam. In the past, it has been Turkish Kurds who have been seen on television screens burning Turkish flags in demonstrations in European cities. Today it is Iraqi Kurds who are burning Turkish flags in rallies in northern Iraq.

Angry Turks accuse the Iraqi Kurds of being ungrateful. For more than a decade, they say, Turkey has played a crucial role in protecting the Kurds' "safe haven" by providing military bases for British and American planes to enforce a no-fly zone in northern Iraq and by allowing humanitarian aid into the region.

Turks are determined to prevent a repetition of the situation created after the 1991 Gulf war, when tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds flooded towards Turkey's border. They worry about a re-emergence of the PKK. But most of all they are concerned that a war, possibly resulting in a political vacuum in Iraq, might lead to the creation of a Kurdish federal state in northern Iraq.

The safe haven established with Turkey's help in 1991 - for humanitarian purposes - developed into something quite different: a Kurdish entity with a parliament, government, customs and "diplomatic" missions abroad. Turkey believes that giving Iraqi Kurds federal status would establish the nucleus of a future independent state. It does not believe it can rely on the United States to prevent this and sees the threat of its own military force as its only sure guarantee.

Kurds, and many Iraqis, argue that what happens in northern Iraq is none of Turkey's business anyway. But this logic will not withstand geopolitical considerations. Turkey has a very large Kurdish population that might be inspired by their Iraqi brethren.

The Kurdish issue is a major obstacle in the United States' efforts to secure the help it needs from Turkey to open a northern front in the war against Iraq. Although the most powerful player in the war theatre, America needs Turkey as a partner and an ally not only in Iraq - but elsewhere as well. And despite the unresolved differences, Americans and Turks have agreed on several issues: Turkish troops will not participate in military operations; US troops alone will be responsible for securing the oilfields of Kirkuk and Mosul; Turkish troops will be deployed on a border strip inside Iraq 20 kilometres deep.

The landslide election to parliament on Sunday of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, and his imminent installation as prime minister in place of Abdullah Gul, may bring good news for the United States. Erdogan has hinted that he favours going back to parliament to ask for a new vote on basing rights for US troops. But his arrival in power will not solve the problem of the Iraqi Kurds. Only the United States can protect the Iraqi Kurds - and they hope America will reply in kind to their friendship.

Kamran Karadaghi is chief editor of the Iraq service at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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