As United Nations officials prepare to discuss so-called "smart sanctions" on Iraq tomorrow, Turkey is increasingly anxious over the outcome of a debate that could profoundly impact its most economically depressed and politically sensitive region.
Although it has been a key US ally in containing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Turkey has lost some $40 billion in trade with its neighbor in the past decade of sanctions. No one feels it more than Turkey's most restive population, the Kurds.
To Turkey and other front-line countries, continued trade sanctions against Iraq are becoming untenable, forcing them to straddle alliances abroad and needs at home.
In the dusty border crossing of Habur - where the diesel trade dominates the local economy - a long line of trucks disappears into the distant heat haze. Men sit in narrow strips of shade sipping sweet tea, and the smell of oil pervades the dusty air.
"Of course we want to help our allies, but enough is enough," says Abdullah Erin, deputy governor in charge of the Habur border gate. "Everyone here wants the sanctions to come to an end, so we can trade properly with our neighbors like we used to."
The Turkish drivers buy their diesel oil from Iraqi Kurdish groups who control the other side of the border. The Kurds, in turn, buy it from Iraqi government officials farther south, and everyone makes a profit. The diesel trade is the main source of income to tens of thousands of families in this region.
The trouble is that the diesel trade violates UN sanctions, and pours hundreds of millions of dollars a year into the pockets of the Baghdad government. Western officials say Saddam Hussein's son Uday is one of the main beneficiaries.
The American- and British-proposed "smart sanctions" are designed to cut off these unofficial profits, which enrich senior Iraqi officials. The new regime would ease restrictions on many civilian goods entering Iraq through the UN oil-for-food program. But it would also tighten a weapons embargo and crack down hard on the oil-smuggling trade.
Russia opposes the new plan, and has threatened a veto at the UN Security Council. A decision has to be made by tomorrow, and there may be another temporary extension of the existing sanctions program as the diplomatic haggling goes on.
For the estimated 50,000 Turkish drivers who ferry diesel across the border in rickety trucks and tankers, the end of the trade would be a disaster. There is no other work in Turkey's poorest and most volatile region. Many local people agree that the economic hardship brought on by sanctions against Iraq played a part in provoking the Kurdish uprising against Turkish rule in the 1990s.
"People are nervous, they don't really understand what's happening," says Deputy Governor Erin. "They just want the chance to make a living."
Under these domestic pressures, the Turkish government is preparing the ground for normal trade ties. Despite strong American opposition, it sent an ambassador back to Baghdad this year for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War, and several business delegations have been allowed to fly to Iraq to discuss joint projects.
"If there is one issue where the Americans and the Turks do not see eye-to-eye, it is clearly policy toward Iraq," says Soli Ozel, who lectures on international relations at Istanbul's Bilgi University. "Many Turks are convinced that the Americans simply don't care what happens here, as long as they get their way."
US officials promise they will try to address the problems of the front-line states, but they also have their own strategic reasons for wanting to keep Turkey happy. American and British planes fly patrols over northern Iraq from an air base on Turkish soil, and the autonomous Kurdish region the planes seek to protect is just as dependent on the border trade as local Turks are.
The Kurds are the wild card in this complicated equation. Ten years ago, Iraqi Kurds fled across the mountains toward the Turkish border in the hundreds of thousands as the Iraqi government sought revenge for its humiliation in Kuwait. A decade later, the border trade keeps the Iraqi Kurds in relative prosperity, while Western air power guarantees their security.
"We're not scared of Saddam," says Selahattin, one of hundreds of drivers who must wait in line for several days to bring their cargo back into Turkey through the Habur gate. "As long as the border is open, everyone is safe."
Now, Washington sees northern Iraq as a potential building block for opposition to Saddam Hussein, but Turkey is suspicious of Kurdish intentions. It believes the Iraqi Kurds want to transform autonomy into full independence - a move that Ankara fears could destabilize Kurdish regions inside Turkey's own borders.
For that reason, Turkey would like to see central authority from Baghdad restored throughout Iraq, including the north, as soon as possible. It is, at best, a reluctant ally in the campaign against Saddam Hussein, even though Turkish officials acknowledge that he could still pose a serious threat to regional security.
While Washington and London believe trade and security issues in Iraq are deeply entwined, there is a growing clamor in the border lands for a change in approach. Many local people fear "smart sanctions" will be a step in the wrong direction.
At the Habur gate, the discussion centers on more immediate issues of economic survival.
"If the Americans want to fight Saddam, let them do it," says Mehmet, another driver on the dusty border road. "But they should leave us alone to get on with our business."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor