Sabre-Rattling in Ankara Turkey Concerned as Kurds Take Control of Northern Iraq

Ankara is thinking aloud about a possible military intervention in northern Iraq. As the Kurdish population consolidates its hold on oil-rich Kirkuk, the Turkish government worries about increased sectarian violence among the separatist PKK.

By in Istanbul

Oil-rich Kirkuk in northern Iraq has been described as a "powder keg." Here, a pipeline burns just outside the city after a morter attack last year.

Oil-rich Kirkuk in northern Iraq has been described as a "powder keg." Here, a pipeline burns just outside the city after a morter attack last year.

The confidential report on strategic threats to the Turkish nation issued by Turkey's National Intelligence Service (MIT) bore a simple title: "Iraq, Terror, Kirkuk and the PKK." Copies of the explosive document were already lying on the desks of the Turkish president and of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the beginning of the new year.

And it is explicit about the threats facing Turkey -- especially the one posed by Iraq. Kurdish PKK militias have withdrawn to the northern part of Turkey's neighbor to the south, and the region's Kurdish population already enjoys far-reaching autonomy. Were Iraq to break apart, Ankara would suddenly be faced with a Kurdish state as a neighbor, a situation, the report makes clear, which could incite Kurdish separatists in south-eastern Turkey to continue their fight for independence.

Kurds are already attempting to alter the demography of the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk in their favor, the document warns. Some 600,000 Kurds have already been drawn into the multi-ethnic city, many of them returnees after former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein followed a policy of increasing the city's Arab population. Some Kurds have even been lured back with cash -- while at the same time some 200,000 members of the Turkmen minority have been driven out, according to the confidential report. Come referendum time -- when Kirkuk residents will be asked to vote on whether the city should become part of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq -- the increase in Kurdish residents is meant to ensure a favorable result.

A Turkish military intervention in Iraq ?

Turkey, the report says, cannot afford to remain passive in the face of such developments, a point of view Erdogan emphasized in Ankara on Tuesday. "Turkey will not remain a silent observer of developments in Iraq and will not remain indifferent to developments in Kirkuk," he said.

The Turkish government has called for the referendum in Kirkuk to be postponed -- a position that reflects a recommendation of the Iraq Study Group, which provided a non-partisan analysis of the situation in Iraq for the US government in early December.

Even a military intervention could not be excluded as "one option" an Erdogan advisor told DER SPIEGEL. "The territorial integrity of Iraq has to be preserved. A civil war in Kirkuk must be prevented," he said.

But the advisor also said the bases the separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has set up in northern Iraq remain Ankara's greatest worry. The number of Turkish troops around the Iraqi border has already been increased, Turkish newspaper Zaman reported. Even the political opposition in Ankara has said it would support a parliamentary resolution to send Turkish troops into northern Iraq.

Deniz Baykal, the leader of CHP, the largest opposition party in Ankara, is interested in attracting popular attention ahead of presidential elections in May and general elections in November. He has effectively urged the Turkish government to prepare a military intervention in Iraq. "We are ready to back the government (on intervention)," he said over the weekend. "We're planning to invite parliament to debate this."

Alarmed, the US government in Washington had its ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalizad, warn the Turkish government against interfering in Iraqi affairs.

Increasing the pressure on Washington

Despite the rhetoric, it is hard to imagine Turkey risking a major confrontation with its close ally the US. Such a move would also risk spreading the conflict to the entire region and bogging Turkey down in the increasingly violent Iraq quagmire. The fallout would be difficult, if not impossible, to control.

But things are far from having developed that far. Ankara's threats are intended first and foremost to up the pressure on Washington. Turkey already feels its overseas ally has let it down when it comes to fighting the PKK. Now it wants the United States to at least make sure the Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq keep their hands off Kirkuk. "We have to make it clear to the Iraqi Kurds that they mustn't go too far with their demands," one Turkish diplomat said.

Turkey is especially sensitive when it comes to Kirkuk: The city, whose oilfields are among the richest in the world, was once part of the Ottoman Empire. The prospect of it becoming the capital of a wealthy Kurdish state is a nightmare for Turkey. An oil pipeline connects Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean coast. But oil delivery has been interrupted repeatedly since the war in Iraq. Turkey also feels obliged to use its political power to protect the Turkmen minority living in Kirkuk, a population ethnically related to the population of Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been ratcheting up the rhetoric on Iraq.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been ratcheting up the rhetoric on Iraq.

Let down by the United States

But sending troops into Kirkuk would be highly risky for a Turkey which is primarily interested in peace and stability in the region. A military intervention against the leaders of the PKK -- which both the US and the European Union classify as a terrorist organization -- who are hiding in the mountains of northern Iraq seem like a more probable development. It is from there that the PKK organize attacks on Turkey -- and where they acquire weapons before smuggling them across the border.

Turkey has kept quiet for years, repeatedly pacified by promises from Washington. Now Ankara is making it clear its patience is running out. Ankara, for example, recently received classified information that the two PKK leaders most wanted by Ankara, Murat Karayilan and Cemil Bayik, were on their way for a health check-up at a hospital in northern Iraq. The government was enraged to find it had no means of arresting them.

Ankara felt it had been let down again by its American friends. At the party meeting, Erdogan said he expected "solid results" from the United States showing that Washington shares Ankara's concern about the PKK and is willing to lend its support just as Ankara supported Washington after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The Turkish government is concerned about a possible new wave of PKK attacks in the spring. But Ankara ignored a cease-fire offered by the organization last year, stating blandly at the time that the offer was not to be taken seriously. Now, Erdogan seems to be making up for having previously neglected to formulate a comprehensive strategy to deal with the PKK.

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