As Turkey Takes Slice of Iraq, US Nods but Neighbors Fret

Shifting sands of Kurdish power give Turks opening

Today is not exactly the medieval period, when Ottoman Turks staked out an empire that nearly surrounded the Mediterranean. But in the recent chaos of combat between Kurds in Iraq, Turkey may see a chance to expand its reach.

Aiming to protect against attacks from rebellious Kurds who terrorize it from northern Iraq, Turkey has begun to carve out a three-to-12-mile-wide "Temporary Danger Zone" inside Iraq.

Turkey insists the zone is to be temporary and won't include a heavy military presence. But the move could signal a dramatic strategic shift. Some hear echoes of Israel's 1982 annexation of a nine-mile-wide security zone in southern Lebanon - and the persistent fighting that has ensued there. Many observers quiver at the idea of establishing another such precedent. Some say Iran might create its own zone in Iraq, thus expanding its influence.

The United States, however, has already pledged support to Turkey, its NATO ally, for the idea. This provokes howls from critics who see an American double standard: Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein attacks the Kurds and is flogged with 44 cruise missiles, while Turkey receives a nod of assent.

Turkey spends as much as $8 billion a year to combat a group of Marxist militant rebels - the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) - whose goal is to create an independent homeland in eastern Turkey. An estimated 3,000 insurgents have established hideouts and camps just across the border in Iraq despite Turkish efforts to oust them. The largest such attempt came in March 1995, when some 35,000 Turkish troops moved into northern Iraq and conducted operations for several weeks.

By establishing a zone along its 206-mile border with Iraq, Turkey could preempt the PKK's frequent cross-border raids on Turkey.

It would do so by equipping the mountainous area with electronic sensors and other high-tech equipment to warn against impending attack. The Turks stress that the zone will not have military bases, combat forces, or heavy weapons. "Turkey has no design for expansion or influence," says one Turkish official.

An offensive or defensive move?

But many are skeptical, especially Iraq.

Despite two days of talks in the Turkish capital, Ankara, with Hameed Yousouf Mamadi, one of Saddam Hussein's advisers, Turkey was unable to allay Iraqi concerns.

Iraq insists that because its new Kurdish ally - the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which opposes the PKK - now controls the region, Turkey will have no more trouble from the PKK.

"There is no need now for such a zone," Mr. Hamadi said. "This is no more a region where anyone can move freely" - a reference to the PKK.

Turkey is clearly pleased with the new Kurdish faction's dominance - because of its anti-PKK stance. But Turkey maintains that the previous Kurdish rulers of the region could not control the Turkish rebels and neither will the new ones.

Turkey is unbending. "We are obliged to make the necessary security measures until authority is effectively restored by the Iraqi or local authorities," says Turkey's Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller.

Increased Iranian influence

Another skeptical neighbor is Iran, despite the fact that it might gain by forming its own such zone.

Like Turkey, Kurdish rebels harass Iran from northern Iraq.

Also, since another group of Iranian-backed Kurds just suffered a crushing defeat by the Iraqi-backed faction, Iran may want to respond.

But any Iranian action would lead to "a partition of northern Iraq into zones of influence," says a European diplomat. "This would mean the Lebanonization of Iraq, which would be very dangerous."

Indeed, southern Lebanon is one of the region's tinder boxes, with Israel and its proxies doing regular battle with Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hizbullah guerrillas.

Tightrope diplomacy

While trying to calm Iraq's concerns, Turkey is also negotiating with the US.

Turkey would have benefited from the now-postponed UN-Iraq oil-for-food deal, under which Iraq would ease the effect of UN sanctions by selling a limited amount of oil for humanitarian supplies.

With the recent Iraqi-US conflict, the deal is off. Although the US may not provide more aid to Turkey, its willingness to back the new security zone - despite concerns about its effect on the region - mollifies Turkey somewhat.

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