Kurdish groups unite as Turkey watches, warily

Anticipating US action against Baghdad, two Iraqi Kurdish factions will meet Friday.

With the prospect of an American-orchestrated regime change in Iraq growing closer, rival Kurdish factions in northern Iraq – key potential allies of the US in any military action – are burying their differences.

The joint Kurdish parliament will reconvene Friday in the Kurdistan National Assembly building in the city of Arbil. High on the agenda is the consideration of a new constitution that lays out the Kurdish vision of a future, federated Iraq, post-Saddam Hussein.

Weather-worn front lines marked by rocky trenches have separated Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) for most of the past decade. But the civil war, spurred by disputes over sharing revenue and power, and mixed strategies toward Baghdad, went quiet after a US-brokered peace accord in 1998.

The revival of the regional assembly is one of the last key steps of that deal and is the first meeting of the group since 1996, when inter-Kurdish fighting was nearing its peak.

"This will send a very powerful message to Baghdad and to our neighbors that the Kurdish front is solid, is unified, and that we will move forward," says Hoshyar Zebari, a senior KDP strategist contacted in northern Iraq.

"There are some attempts in America, in some quarters, to marginalize the Kurdish role," says Mr. Zebari. "This meeting will convince our American friends, if they had any doubts about the unity of the Kurds, that the strength of the Kurdish front is reestablished."

But while Kurdish unity may bring a sigh of relief in Washington as war looms – and US war planners look for viable allies on the ground – it is rattling Turkey.

Turkish forces have frequently conducted armored operations into northern Iraq to root out Kurdish guerrillas from Turkey of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The group waged a bloody campaign for Kurdish rights from the mid-1980s. Several thousand Turkish troops remain inside Iraqi border areas now.

"We are there to make sure [the Iraqi Kurds] stay within bounds," says Seyfi Tashan, head of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara. "We are there, and can intervene at any time. We have the capability to do that."

The Kurdish enclave of northern Iraq operates largely beyond Baghdad's control, protected by the US- and British-enforced no-fly zone. Kurdish leaders insist that they see their future as part of a federated Iraq, and long ago gave up as unrealistic the idea of forging an independent Kurdish state.

"As we move along, our Turkish neighbors and others will realize they have nothing to fear from our aspirations," says Barham Salih, prime minister of the PUK. "We aspire to have a peaceful, democratic, and federal Iraq, and that is good for them also. We have a flourishing self-government process that can be a catalyst for all Iraq."

It is no secret among Kurdish observers that prospects of regime change in Iraq have brought the rival factions together.

"The timing could not have been better for the Kurds, given all the political maneuvering about the future composition of an Iraqi government," says Michael Amitay, director of the Washington Kurdish Institute.

The deal, Mr. Amitay says, "certainly speaks to the US about how the Kurds can play a role – or not – in their concept of regime change. It's a very clever piece of strategy."

The Bush administration is expected shortly to seek congressional approval to use some $92 million in unspent funds earmarked for the Iraqi opposition by the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. The money would pay for the training of up to 10,000 members of the opposition in everything from tactics to laser-spotting for airstrikes.

But Turkey remains unconvinced of Kurdish intentions. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit warned last week that a "de facto [Kurdish] state is already on the way to being formed."

Plans reportedly under consideration by the Turkish general staff include deploying Turkish troops along a buffer zone that could be up to 50 miles deep, or even a Turkish move to control the oil centers of Mosul and Kirkuk. Mr. Ecevit vowed that Turkey would "react" if Kurds took control of those cities, which are now in Baghdad's hands.

Talk of Kurdish federalism is only a "cover" for plans to create an independent state, Mr. Tashan says. "If there is turmoil as a result of the American intervention, they can get away with it. Kirkuk is not Kurdish property, and they will not be allowed to go there."

Kurdish leaders counter that Iraqis will decide the fate of cities like Kirkuk and Mosul. "Turkey is a serious regional power, which should have a vital interest in a stable, democratic Iraq," says Mr. Salih of the PUK.

"We are mindful of their anxieties. But Turkey has been very consistent in the last decade, insisting on the territorial integrity of Iraq. No doubt, any [Turkish] intervention would violate that very sovereignty."

The rhetoric may complicate any US or Kurdish war effort. "The Kurds are probably more concerned about the Turks at this point, than they are about the Iraqi regime," says Amitay. And while the outcome is difficult to predict, there are also reasons for inaction.

Sources near the Turkish military say Ankara may be posturing, to ensure its regional dominance.

"Turkey will never invade any part of Iraq," says Metehan Demir, the former diplomatic correspondent for Hurriyet newspaper, in Ankara. "Turkey knows very well that northern Iraq is a swamp ... where any country can easily drown."

Still, uncertainty is causing the Kurds to make peace with each other, says the KDP's Zebari: "We are feeling the pressure, we are sensing the danger, and both leaderships ... recognize that this is the time to get our house in order."

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