Kurdistan Conflict US Urges Iraq to Act Against Kurdish Rebels

The US wants to prevent Turkey from invading northern Iraq at all costs. The White House is putting pressure on Baghdad to act against the PKK -- but whether the Kurdish rebels and Turkish nationalist rage can be brought under control is unclear.
Von Jürgen Gottschlich

"Mister President, Mister President, is the PKK a terrorist group or not?"

"Is what? Can you say that again? I didn't understand the question."

A telephone interview on Sunday evening showed just how far communication between political leaders in Turkey and in northern Iraq had broken down. Mehmed Ali Birand, one of the best-known journalists in Turkey, got a hold of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is also leader of the political party the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. And while a war cabinet sat in Ankara, Birand put pressure on Talabani to say something that would de-escalate the situation -- but without success.

Talabani simply didn't want to commit himself. For 10 minutes, he dodged every question. All he was prepared to say was that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) should, in his opinion, "not create problems here." If the PKK guerillas weren't prepared to lay down their weapons, then they should "return to their countries," he said. Unfortunately he, Talibani, does not himself possess the means to force the PKK to do so, he said.

On Monday, however, he had something more concrete to say. Talibani told reporters that the PKK rebels would announce a ceasefire on Monday evening.

Between both statements lay hours of hectic diplomacy which culminated Monday afternoon in Turkey's promise not to invade northern Iraq for the time being. All diplomatic means would be exhausted before a military operation was launched, said Foreign Minister Ali Babacan.

The White House also said on Monday that the Iraqi government should take "swift action" to stop PKK activities. "We do not want to see wider military action on the northern border," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto, adding that the US would work together with all parties to prevent an escalation of the situation.

It remains to be seen how much the pressure and promises will bring. The PKK has openly provoked Turkey's military and nobody really knows if the rebels can be successfully brought under control. On Monday, a pro-Kurdish news agency reported that the PKK had captured eight Turkish soldiers. The Turkish military confirmed that eight soldiers had been missing since clashes with Kurdish rebels on Sunday in the border area.

Anger Grows in Turkey

The political situation in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq is complicated. Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish autonomous region and Talabani's political rival, had on Sunday flat-out refused to label the PKK a terrorist organization. Barzani announced that the 100,000 members of the official Kurdish militia would resist an invasion by the Turkish army into northern Iraq.

The clear refusal of the autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq to act against PKK separatists -- primarily Turkish Kurds who want independence and who mount attacks on the Turkish army from Iraq -- is the main reason for a rising level of rage among voters in Turkey. Leaders in northern Iraq who don't seem ready to distance themselves from the PKK raids have made themselves targets of Turkish scorn.

"Give Barzani what he deserves," shouted thousands of demostrators from the far-right nationalist party the MHP and its youth organization, the Gray Wolves, in Istanbul and other cities on Sunday. Hundreds marched through Istanbul streets on Sunday evening, partly applauded by crowds of shoppers in the downtown pedestrian zone.

Turkey's legal Kurdish party, the DTP, has also found itself at the uncomfortable center of debate. More and more nationalists have called for DTP politicians, who are accused by demonstrators of being mouthpieces of the PKK, to be thrown out of the Turkish parliament

Most commentators in Turkey's leading newspapers don't want to go quite so far, but even among them there are some who call, almost daily, for the government to quit hesitating. Former general Orhan Kilercioglu, for example, writing in a column in the Daily News, argued on Monday that there was no reason to wait until the beginning of November -- when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to meet US President George W. Bush in Washington. "Why do you want to meet Bush anyway?" he asks Erdogan in his editorial. "Anything you want to say to him, you can say here via television." Playing for time would achieve nothing, he wrote: "The Turkish nation is strong enough to teach the PKK and Iraq a lesson."

And Prime Minister Erdogan, it seems, is aware of just how dangerous the situation has become -- not just along the border with Iraq but also between Turks and Kurds throughout the country. Indeed, after an emergency meeting of Turkey's political and military leaders on Sunday night, he called on people to remain calm and treat each other in a brotherly way. He also asked the media not to exacerbate the situation.

But some sections of the public were hoping Erdogan would finally order the Turkish military to launch a big cross-border operation. While he hopes to increase pressure on other countries, in particular the US, with his martial rhetoric, Erdogan wants to dampen emotions and win time at home. In an interview with the London Times, he accused the US of not taking action against the PKK in northern Iraq. According to international law, Turkey has the right to launch a military operation against a neighboring country which was a base for "terror," he said. However a military operation could be avoided if the PKK was driven out of Iraq, its training camps dismantled and its leaders handed over, he said.

Meanwhile Washington sent its first first concrete signals to Ankara on Sunday night that it was ready to move against the PKK. While the war cabinet was in session, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice contacted Erdogan and asked him to give the US government "a few days," Erdogan reported during a press conference.

Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül met his American counterpart Robert Gates at an international conference in Kiev on Sunday to discuss concrete American steps for containing the PKK. After President Bush affirmed that PKK raids had to stop, there was hope again in Ankara that the US would manage to convince their Kurdish allies in northern Iraq that a further escalation of tensions there could be a disaster.

In the meantime, Barzani has also ordered his own militia to deploy in the volatile area along the Iraqi-Turkish border. It isn't clear whether this deployment is meant to defend against a Turkish incursion or restrain the PKK. Barzani refuses to comment.

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