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Turkish ire may affect Iraq war

Congressional committee this week said Turkey was guilty of 'genocide' against Armenians.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 12, 2007

Istanbul, Turkey

Two obsessions in Turkey may appear unrelated – a recent surge in Kurdish militant attacks and the mass killing of Armenians nearly a century ago – but they are swiftly combining as a strategic tipping point in US-Turkey relations that could affect American forces in Iraq.

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Amid widespread calls for revenge after the killing of some 30 Turkish soldiers and civilians in two weeks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – and the failure of US and Iraqi forces to curb the attacks from bases in Iraq – the Turkish parliament is expected next week to authorize cross-border operations into northern Iraq.

Turkish warplanes and artillery are reportedly already targeting PKK camps, but an incursion could destabilize the one area of Iraq that has been relatively peaceful since the US invasion in 2003.

And complicating the situation is a US congressional committee's approval Wednesday of a resolution calling the 1915 massacres by Ottoman Turks a "genocide." Turkey called the decision "unacceptable," after warning that the vote could jeopardize US access to a military airbase crucial to resupplying US troops in Iraq.

President Bush said the non-binding resolution "would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror," echoing a letter from all eight living former secretaries of state opposing the resolution.

Turkey accuses the US and Iraqi Kurdish forces in northern Iraq of providing safe haven and military support for an estimated 3,000 PKK rebels, and not doing enough to stop cross-border attacks. US commanders and Iraqi Kurdish officials say they are doing all they can to stamp out PKK activity, but their reach is limited in the remote mountains along the border.

The US has "been caught between their tactical alliance with the Kurds in Iraq, and their strategic alliance – at least what it used to be – with Turkey," says Bulent Aliriza, a Turkey analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"The reality is that the US relies to an incredible extent on the Iraqi Kurds … and any meaningful action by the Turks would annoy the Iraqi Kurds and change the balance in Iraq against the US in this war," says Mr. Aliriza. "The worst thing that could happen, from the point of view of the [White House] is for the Turks to intervene, creating an even bigger mess in Iraq."

Analysts say a large incursion is not likely, though domestic pressure is growing on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to act against the PKK. A spike in attacks this spring prompted the top brass of Turkey's military – the second largest ground forces of the NATO alliance, after the US – to call for government approval to cross into Iraq.

Turkish troops into Iraq?

This week Turkish units have begun deploying along the border, as the Turkish media speaks of a possible incursion of 15,000 soldiers and even creation of a buffer zone 10 to 20 miles deep inside Iraq.

But Turkey has been here before, during an estimated 24 previous cross-border operations against the PKK in the 1980s and 1990s. The two largest took place in 1995 and 1997, the latter with 50,000 troops, but the PKK remained.

The Turkish military is "very well aware of the pros and cons of a cross-border operation into northern Iraq, and everybody knows it wouldn't be an easy task to step there because you could have some losses, you could have some terrible results – you never know," says Metehan Demir, a military specialist in Ankara with the Sabah newspaper.

"When you go there, you will not only be facing the PKK. You don't know what the peshmerga [Iraqi Kurdish militias] will do; you don't know how the Americans will contribute to the peshmerga or PKK behind the scenes," says Mr. Demir. "These are real concerns in the Turkish capital."