Kurd-Turk rivalry threatens US plans for Iraq

Turkish parliament to meet this weekend to discuss allowing US troops on its bases.

By , Staff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If war begins in Iraq, it could look like this: Turkey's troops move into autonomous Kurdish areas in northern Iraq; Kurds view it as an act of war and open fire.

It could also look like this: Kurds move on the oil-rich Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Mosul; Turkey views the advance as a casus belli and launches an attack to prevent the cities from falling into Kurdish hands.

In either scenario, two of Washington's key allies could wind up fighting each other instead of the forces of Saddam Hussein - not exactly what the US had in mind when it drew up plans for regime change in Iraq.

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But in the arithmetic of pre-war diplomacy, Turks and Kurds are stuck in a zero-sum game. So far, the US hasn't found a formula to convince the old adversaries that one side's gain doesn't have to be the other's loss.

"When the Americans tilt a little this way, toward the Kurds, Turkey is really bothered and gets nervous. When the US tilts toward Turkey and keeps the Kurds out, Kurds get irritated," says Dr. Dogu Ergil, a political sociologist at Ankara University. "Both sides are living in fear of each other."

Some Kurds are alarmed by the details of a tentative US-Turkish memorandum which provides for thousands more Turkish troops moving into northern Iraq to block Kurdish territorial grabs, and even calls for Turkey to help oversee the distribution of guns to Kurdish fighters.

Turks, in turn, have grown indignant at the burning of their national flag at Kurdish demonstrations in northern Iraq. Turkish officials are bitter, they say, because they were led to believe Washington had secured Kurdish backing for the agreement.

That agreement would have to be brought to the parliament once again by the new prime minister-designate, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey's ruling party yesterday announced a special weekend session to discuss war plans. If a second motion fails or is delayed long, the US says war could begin without Turkey's help.

Washington has long acknowledged that the lack of a northern front against Hussein is a recipe for longer and bloodier war. But an even worse scenario could be in store. Turkey has suggested its troops might march deeper into Iraq anyway, should Kurdish militias make any moves to control Kirkuk and Mosul - former Ottoman territories that Turkey's founding father wanted to be part of the young Turkish Republic. US Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman cautioned Turkey last week against unilaterally sending troops into northern Iraq.

"He said the Turkish military cannot enter Iraq, as if he can dictate to Turkey what Turkey can do," says Egemen Bagis, Mr. Erdogan's foreign policy adviser. "If the US feels they need to come 10,000 miles away to Iraq to protect their citizens from another Sept. 11," he asks, "isn't it right that Turkey, which is right on Iraq's border and a longstanding ally hosting US forces, should be concerned? If Saddam is armed [with] weapons of mass destruction, Turkey has a right to be in Iraq."

For Kurds, Turkey looks like the US's favored victor. But in Turkey's eyes, Kurds already have a major victory in their pockets: freedom from Hussein and the prosperity that has flourished since Turkey enabled the creation of no-fly zones after the 1991 Gulf War.

Turkey now sees the Iraqi Kurdish economy as a threat far more worrisome than the Kurdish military force. Kurds in northern Iraq have for the first time in their history been enjoying a portion of the oil wealth, under UN auspices. The potential increase of oil-generated prosperity after the war, in addition to income generated from other revamped natural resources, will be like a "utopia target" for the Kurds in Turkey's poor southeastern corner.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds lose sleep at the thought of Turks coming in to erase their gains of the past decade. The intensity of this dynamic may have been underestimated by the Bush administration in its focus on Baghdad.

"Relations have soured because the Kurdish economy is very much alive and kicking, and very much bothers the Turkish establishment," says Ergil. "Any sign of even economic autonomy is seen as divisive, destabilizing, and dangerous."

Bolstering Turkish sentiments that the West does not understand Turkey's struggle against Kurdish separatism, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Wednesday that Turkey's 1999 trial of Kurdish guerrilla chief Abdullah Ocalan was unfair. And in a sign that Turkey remains wary of its own Kurdish population, the country's top prosecutor yesterday asked the constitutional court to close the main Kurdish party - immediately after it closed another Kurdish party.

Washington says that senior administration officials have expressed, time and again, that they do not support an independent Kurdish state. "I don't think we could be more clear," says a US Embassy official in Ankara.

But Turkey points to statements by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad during a recent trip to northern Iraq. Mr. Khalilzad said that Kurds would not lose the autonomy they have gained since the end of the Gulf War. "People here feel he is saying one thing here, and another thing there," says Ilnur Cevik, editor of The Turkish Daily News. "There is a serious lack of communication on both sides." The two main Kurdish groups with offices here should have showed patience when they heard about Turkey's plans for involvement in Iraq, he argues. "But instead of asking for clarification from Ankara, they went on a collision course which has elevated the rhetoric."

Ankara is rife with theories of who turned up the heat. Many Turks here accuse the US, frustrated over the Turkish parliament's rejection of the troop-basing proposal. They blame the US for instigating anti-Turkish demonstrations in Kurdish-controlled areas to illustrate the dangers of staying out of Bush's coalition of the willing. Others say that Iran or other regional powers, wary of Turkish-American influence over Iraq, have reason to encourage Kurds.

"Who benefits if the Kurds and Turks are at loggerheads? Iran and Syria and maybe Saddam," says Cevik. "The US wants a northern front and doesn't want this kind of bickering."

The Turkish list of what it wants from the Bush administration is becoming clearer. Turkey wants the US to show how it will keep power centralized in Baghdad. It wants the ethnic Turkmens, to have a share in that government. It wants guarantees that Iraq's oil resources will not fall into Kurdish hands. But most of all, Turkey wants a US declaration against the creation of a Kurdish state.

Without that, a prominent member of Erdogan's Justice and Development (AK) Party says he will lead a campaign to vote down any second motion to base US troops here.

"I don't see any assurance that they're not going to recognize a Kurdish state," says Emin Sirin, the deputy chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs committee. "I want to hear it loud and clear from Bush or [Secretary or State Colin] Powell that if a Kurdish state is declared, the US will not recognize it."

Khalilzad, Bush's envoy, is expected to return to Turkey in the coming days to try to smooth tension. He will face the increasingly complicated task of convincing Turks and Kurds that they and America are on the same page.

"It's up to the Americans," says Ergil. "They have to promise the Kurds a place in the multi-poled Iraqi situation after Saddam and preserve their autonomy and ensure that no matter what happens, even if the system crumbles, they do not declare independence."

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