Old roots to Ankara's Iraq policy

Turkey says a flood of Kurdish refugees from northern Iraq would justify a military incursion.

To understand Turkey's vote supporting its right to send troops to northern Iraq, look no further than Kirkuk and Mosul, two oil-rich cities that tell the story of Turkey's own manifest destiny. It's a tale that continues to develop today, driving Turkish policy on Iraq and further straining relations between Ankara and Washington.

Since the controversial parliamentary vote late last week, the US has been trying to dissuade Turkey from entering Iraq unilaterally. Yesterday, Ankara announced that Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq had not advanced toward the Turkish border, which Turkey says would justify a military deployment.

Iraqi-held Kirkuk and Mosul - which Kurdish, Turkish, and American forces could home in on in coming days - have long sat like Turkey's unrealized hinterlands. According to Turkish history books, European powers, engaged in a duplicitous "Great Game" at the end of World War I to carve up the Middle East, deprived the crumbling Ottoman Empire of Kirkuk and Mosul - regions founding father Kemal Ataturk saw as belonging, without question, to the nascent Republic of Turkey. As compensation for their loss, Turkey was promised some 10 percent of the oil revenues of Iraq. The money came "in fits and starts," says Ankara University professor Dogu Ergil, and after 13 years, it stopped coming all together. A line item for the Iraqi oil revenue still appears in Turkey's national budget each year - next to it, a blank space.

"It is in the public conscience, no matter what anyone says, that those areas are meant to be within Turkey's borders," says Ahmet K. Han, a political economist at Istanbul Bilgi University. "Turkish students learn that Mosul and Kirkuk were intended to be part of the natural borders of Turkey, in the misak-i milli," he adds, using the Ottoman Turkish term for Ataturk's vision of Turkey's boundaries as agreed upon in the country's founding National Pact.

To be sure, few Turks today talk about the misak-i milli. But most here hold as sacred the tenet that Turkey can and must prevent Iraqi Kurds - many of whom were forced out of Mosul and Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein - from gaining control of the cities. With their own oil, Turkish officials argue, Kurds could make a Kurdish state economically viable. In Turkish minds, that would spell the end of Turkey's borders because it would prompt Kurds in southeastern Turkey - around 20 percent of the country's population - to fight to join a new Kurdistan.

The very concept of a far-away superpower enforcing new ideas of "regime change" digs up old resentments at having been swindled out of lucrative territory Turkey saw as its natural soil.

But for those with a shorter view of history, the last US-led war against Iraq triggered many of Turkey's current economic and political problems. The 1991 Gulf War ended normal trade relations between Iraq and Turkey. The war also closed down an oil pipeline from Kirkuk to Ceyhan, Turkey, causing Turkey to lose revenue it collected from transporting the oil to the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey also blames the first Gulf War's flood of refugees for allowing thousands of guerrillas in the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) to slip into Turkey, heating up a violent separatist war.

The pipeline was repaired in 1996. After years of sanctions, Iraq was allowed to sell some of its oil under the United Nations-administered oil-for-food program. But tight controls on Iraqi oil, Turkish officials complain, have kept the pipeline carrying a third of what it could. The pipeline's capacity is 81 million tons of oil per year, according to figures from Turkey's main energy agency, but last year it carried only 31 million tons. Unofficially, however, far more Iraqi oil has been entering Turkey.

Along with Syria, Jordan, and others, Turkey was a regular customer for inexpensive smuggled oil, diplomatic sources here say. The US for several years ignored the black market trade in part because Turkey was also buying diesel oil from autonomous Kurds in northern Iraq, which was pivotal to Kurdish development under the cover of the no-fly zone. "The diesel trade was about turning a blind eye so that Kurdish groups, the KDP and PUK [Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] could pay salaries," says a European diplomat here who asked not to be named. In May of 2000, Turkey began to regulate the diesel trade more tightly, in part because the government realized it was losing a chance to collect revenue, and in part because it worried that the Kurds - particularly the KDP - were becoming too affluent, and perhaps inching too close to independence. "Turkey woke up to the fact that they were losing tons of money," the diplomat says.

The US also feared that the smuggled oil was being used by Hussein to secretly rebuild his arsenal. Valerie Marcel, an expert on Iraqi oil and Middle East politics, says that Hussein at the very least could use the proceeds to strengthen his hand within Iraq. "It's quite likely that a lot of the money he earned was used to consolidate his power," says Dr. Marcel, of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. "It doesn't only go to rearming, but proceeds that come from smuggling are the ones that you spend on the most politically sensitive things, that you don't want to the UN to see."

US officials had hoped that the promise of an oil pipeline pumping at full pulse, normalized trade, and a stable, democratic Iraq on Turkey's borders would convince Turkey to join Washington's drive for regime change.

But through Turkish lenses, changing the status quo raises more problems than it solves. The dynamics of the unofficial oil trade made it even more uncomfortable for Turkey to make a decision about allowing the US to use its bases for a northern front. "Both over-the-counter trade and the smuggled oil were drivers for Turkey in maintaining good relations with Iraq. And the Iraqi government hoped such deals would tie Turkey to the Iraqi regime and make it a stakeholder in Baghdad's authority," Marcel says.

Although Turks are no fans of Hussein, Iraqi oil sold by a centralized regime in Baghdad is preferable to oil controlled by an Iraqi Kurdistan. The Bush administration last week reiterated its stance: There will be no independent Kurdistan, and Iraq's territorial integrity will be preserved. But, looking back over more than a few disappointments, Turks remain deeply skeptical - enough to risk a strain in relations with the U.S. and move towards sending more troops into northern Iraq, a gambit no one but Turkey finds agreeable.

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