Iraqi Kurds sidelined as US woos Turkey

President Bush meets with Turkish leader in a bid to win use of military bases for any war effort.

While the United States applies high-level pressure to Turkey to win the use of critical military bases for any war with Iraq, concern is growing among Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq that their future is also on the bargaining table.

President George Bush meets Tuesday with the leader of Turkey's ruling party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the latest US attempt to woo Turkey to serve as a staging base for a reported 100,000 US troops and to allow US use of its air bases.

But Iraqi Kurds worry they are being forced out of the strategic equation by reported Turkish demands that the US promise to limit the role of Kurdish forces during and after any conflict.

"If America wants a fundamental change in Iraq, it can't ignore our role," says Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of two Kurdish factions that rule northern Iraq under the US-British no-fly zone. "We do not want bad relations with Turkey. But if America doesn't take seriously our requirements, we believe it is impossible to have stability in Iraq now or in the future."

Turkey has repeatedly threatened to send forces across the border to prevent Kurds from declaring an independent state in northern Iraq - a state the Kurds say they also reject. It has also warned Kurds against taking over the oil-rich areas of Kirkuk, historically a Kurdish city.

Though US-Turkey horse-trading makes Kurds uneasy, US reasons for deploying ground forces into northern Iraq include fighting off any attack from Baghdad and preventing a Turkish incursion. Already, Turkish officials speak of creating a 60-mile military buffer, and are reported to have deployed up to 10,000 troops in border areas. More than two-dozen armored vehicles have long been visible in northern Iraq, remnants of three cross-border operations to hunt rebels among Turkey's own ethnic Kurds. "It is an occupation, because the reasons for [Turkish troops] no longer exist," says Fawzi Hariri, a senior KDP official. "They serve no purpose, except to intimidate."

Still, it is Turkish concerns being addressed at the highest US levels. The US is offering $5 billion in aid, say Turkish reports, help in solving the Cyprus problem, and, to pressure on the European Union to admit the Islamic nation.

"Obviously, if we are going to have significant ground forces in the north [of Iraq], this is the country they have to come through," US deputy defense chief Paul Wolfowitz said last week during a Turkey visit. "There is no other option."

Though Turkish officials say war with Iraq is not in their interest, their own list of demands has been circulating in the Turkish press. Besides debt relief and cash, it includes a demand that the US will prevent the creation of a Kurdish state and ensure that Kurdish forces - which number in the tens of thousands and are the only significant armed opposition within Iraq - will play no meaningful role.

Turkey's root concern is that a boost of Kurdish influence in northern Iraq will spark unrest among its own ethnic Kurds.

"It would be a great irony if the US were to subordinate human rights and political rights of all the people of Iraq to Turkey's interest," says Barham Salih, prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) territory of northern Iraq. "The people of Iraq should be given the right to self-determination."

Kurdish leaders on both sides say they want to be part of a democratic, federal Iraq, in which local autonomy is guaranteed by Baghdad. "If this can be achieved without military action and risks to our people, good," says Mr. Salih. "But we are freedom fighters; the Kurds have an important role to play."

That role is still unclear, say Kurdish officials in contact with US officials. But the game plan regarding Turkey is taking shape as US efforts to bring it on board peak. While in Washington, Mr. Erdogan also will meet Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Mr. Wolfowitz's trip last week followed several high-level visits.

With polls showing low support for any US-led war, decisionmakers in Turkey are torn. Freedom to act on their own in northern Iraq may be a key consideration. "Whatever candy the US can offer Erdogan, it can't change Turkey's interests," says a Turkish official in Ankara. "America is reading us wrong. It is not a matter of $1 billion or $2 billion. We do not feel comfortable with this war."

Turkey is concerned the final price tag could be higher than the $60 billion some analysts put on Ankara's losses in trade since the 1991 Gulf War. It also fears strategic fallout from war and the unpopularity of having US troops on the ground.

Kurds also feel pinched. The US has yet to provide any gas masks, nerve-agent antidote, and protective suits requested by Kurdish leaders last April.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has used chemical weapons against Kurds before. "All American officials say 'We will defend you if Saddam attacks,' " says Barzani of the KDP. "But we believe it is not enough. What we are looking for is a clear, public statement to convince the people."

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