Will an extended Turkish offensive further destabilize Iraq?
President Bush wants a limit to the Turkish campaign against rebels, but Turkey says no to a timetable.
Rebuffing American calls for a swift withdrawal of its forces from northern Iraq, the one part of the country at relative peace, Turkey is refusing to place a timetable on its campaign aimed at Kurdish militants.Skip to next paragraph
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates left Ankara Thursday with few public promises that Turkey would limit its offensive, now entering its second week, which is using intelligence from the United States to target the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Turkish air and artillery strikes continued Thursday as ground forces sought to destroy bases in the remote, mountainous region of Iraq.
This US support has sparked fury among Washington's main allies in Iraq and, analysts say, an extended period of fighting risks destabilizing the semiautonomous Kurdish region by drawing Iraqi Kurdish forces into the fight against Turkey – while any overt Iraqi support for the PKK could prompt a far more serious Turkish escalation.
"We're entering a tense phase in the US-Turkey relationship," says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The word has come back to Washington that this has really strained the US-Iraqi Kurdish relationship to its limits [and] has to end, or we're in trouble."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, warned that the "crisis is very sensitive" for Iraq. "We told [Turkey] that if these operations are not suspended, it would destabilize the whole region," he told the Monitor. "We told them this is the 25th time [Turkish forces] have entered Iraq, but have achieved no results … the situation is very dangerous."
Over the past few days, many Iraqi Kurds have held street protests against the Turkish offensive. "We feel the Turkish aggression is a veiled threat to us not to implement Article 140 or to postpone it," says demonstration organizer Aziz Omar, referring to the article of the Iraqi Constitution that calls for a referendum on the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kurds, who have a significant presence in the ethnically and religiously mixed city, insist it should be part of their semiautonomous region. Kirkuk is also home to Turkmen, who have ethnic and historic ties to Turkey. They oppose Article 140.
The task of balancing the competing needs of Turkey and the US, two critical allies, has fallen to Mr. Gates, who asked Turkey to end its incursion within days or "a week or two, not months." During meetings with senior Turkish officials Thursday, he also called for political and economic measures to ease the plight of Turkey's ethnic Kurds, who form the ranks of the estimated 3,000 PKK militants based in northern Iraq.
But Turkey made clear that military considerations trump all else. "Turkey will remain in northern Iraq as long as necessary," Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said after meeting Gates. "There is no need for us to stay there after we finish the terrorist infrastructure.… We have no intention to interfere in [Iraq's] domestic politics, no intention to occupy any area."
Gates stopped short of threatening Turkey, noting common interests in fighting the PKK, which the US and the European Union officially list as a terrorist group.
At a press conference in Washington Thursday, President Bush said Turkey should pullout "as quickly as possible" from Iraq. "The Turks, the Americans, and the Iraqis – including the Iraqi Kurds – have a common enemy in the PKK," he said, adding that he agreed with Gates that the incursion "must be limited."