Turkey sharpens response to upsurge in Kurd violence

The banned PKK is accused of bombings throughout Turkey, prompting Turkey and Iran to shell camps on Iraq's border.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Turkey is marshaling forces along its border with Iraq as diplomatic efforts have done little to curb a separatist Kurdish group using bases in Iraq to launch attacks against Turkish forces.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has also been accused of being behind several bombings throughout Turkey. Monday two people died and at least seven others were injured in a blast in Turkey's Mediterranean city Antalya. It came hours after three bombs went off in the resort town of Marmaris injuring 21 and another blast Sunday in Istanbul that injured six people.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility but local Marmaris officials said they suspected the outlawed PKK was involved in at least those blasts.

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The attacks, if proven to have been carried out by the PKK, illustrates the strength of the group Ankara had hoped would have been quashed when the United States military invaded neighboring Iraq in 2003, which the PKK uses as a base of operations. But to the Turks' frustration, the war in Iraq seems to have only emboldened the group as fellow Iraqi Kurds just over the border have grown stronger and more autonomous since the invasion.

Following the killing of 15 of its soldiers in July, Turkey started moving a large number of troops and tanks toward its border with Iraq. Turkey, along with Iran, which has its own Kurdish rebel group to deal with, has also been shelling parts of the northern Iraqi border where the PKK has camps.

"Clearly there is a tension to this issue. The United States is paying more attention to it, but the question is whether the Turks will wait to see concrete results from the US," says Henri Barkey, an expert on Turkey at Lehigh University. "It also depends a lot on whether there are other spectacular attacks by the PKK."

Adds Mr. Barkey: "It's a huge potential headache for the US. The last thing the US wants is a war between Kurds and Turks in Iraq. The last place that is calm in Iraq is in danger of going up in flames."

Over the past two years, Turkey has seen a marked upsurge in attacks against its security forces by members of the outlawed PKK, which waged a separatist war in Turkey the 1980s and '90s which cost the lives of some 30,000.

For many Turks, Israel's recent invasion of Lebanon in pursuit of Hizbullah – though highly unpopular – also raised the question of why Turkey was sitting back while its soldiers were being attacked.

"There has been an upsurge of PKK activity, and that has a military cost, of course. On the other hand, when soldiers are killed, it just whips up the nationalist urge in the country and that cost the government, which needs to be seen as doing something on this issue," says Cengiz Candar, a political analyst in Istanbul.

Mr. Candar describes Turkey's military buildup on the Iraqi border as "saber rattling," but says it's also "a statement to the Americans that Turkey is uneasy and trying to follow up on its demands that the PKK be dismantled."

US officials in Turkey say they are aware of Ankara's concerns and have been taking steps toward dismantling the PKK, such as working with European governments to shut down the group's funding sources. Most recently, the US announced that it would soon appoint a special envoy on the PKK issue to formulate a joint Turkish-Iraqi strategy.

"We do recognize that Turkey sees the PKK as its number one security threat and because of that it's a top priority for the US to combat the PKK," says a US official based in Ankara.

Despite the shelling and buildup on the border, Turkey has only taken very limited military action against the PKK.

"[But] if it gets to a point that it is unbearable and if the concrete steps [taken by the US and the Iraqis] don't bear the fruit that we are expecting, then all options are available," a Turkish foreign ministry official says.

Further complicating matters for the US is Iran's involvement. Although the PKK's Iranian counterpart, the Kurdistan Free Life party (Pejak), has recently increased its own activities, observers believe that Iran's recent cooperation with Turkey has less to do with security and more to do with trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Ankara.

"The Iranians can now say, 'We are doing something about the PKK and the United States is not doing anything,' " says Candar.

Officials with the Kurdish regional government in Iraq have condemned the shelling, calling on the Iraqi government to insist its neighbors respect its sovereignty.

Asos Hardi, editor of Awene, an independent Kurdish newspaper based in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, says most Iraqi Kurds would oppose any military action against the PKK.

But Barkey says Iraqi Kurdish leaders wouldn't mind ousting the PKK if it is done delicately.

"There's nothing [Iraqi Kurds] would like more than to get rid of the PKK, but they are looking for a way that is acceptable to them and their own public and which doesn't involve fighting other Kurds," says Barkey.

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