Kurdish rebels kill 13 Turkish soldiers

Attacks near Iraq border raise tensions with potentially crucial Middle East peacemaker.

The Associated Press reports that members of a separatist Kurdish group killed 13 Turkish soldiers near the country's southern border with Iraqi Kurdistan on Sunday, raising tensions at a border that separates America's staunchest allies in Iraq, the Kurds, with Turkey, another key US ally.

Turkey has been pressing Iraq and the United States to hit the bases of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in northern Iraq, and has considered a unilateral military operation across the border to root out the rebels.
An operation to track down the rebels was under way, and troops shelled areas near the border to try to prevent rebels from reaching their bases in northern Iraq, the statement said.
Turkey signed a counterterrorism pact with Iraq in September and had demanded it be allowed to send its troops to Iraq's north to pursue the Kurdish rebels. But Iraq did not agree to the demand under pressure from the leaders of its semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
"We are not concerned with this issue because these clashes and shelling happened inside Turkish territories. This is a Turkish internal problem," Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for the government of Iraq's Kurdish region, said after Sunday's attack.

The Guardian newspaper of Britain says pressure is growing on Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to take unilateral action in northern Iraq, since many Turkish leaders believe the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurds are protecting the Kurdish separatists.

The Turkish cabinet met today amid heightened pressure to hit back at Kurdish separatists in Iraq after 13 soldiers were killed in an ambush yesterday, and two more today.
Three others were also wounded today in the separate attacks in south-eastern Turkey, which followed yesterday's death toll, the worst the Turkish military has suffered at the hands of Kurdish forces in years.
... Mr. Erdogan has come under intense pressure from the military to be allowed to hit PKK bases in northern Iraq. But the US and Iraq have urged him to hold his military in check for fear that a big incursion would destabilize northern Iraq, an area of relative calm compared with the rest of the country.

In an editorial, Lebanon's Daily Star argues that Turkey could become a crucial player in Middle East peacemaking efforts, as long as steps are avoided that might alienate them.

Given the webs of countries that do and do not talk to one another in or about the Middle East, no one is better-placed than the Turks to defuse tensions by opening up new channels of communication. Turkey is on good terms with both the United States and Israel, and although its bid to join the European Union is an uncertain prospect, its relations with several key European countries are solid. In addition, Ankara has strengthened ties in recent years with both Damascus and another of Washington's favorite whipping boys, Tehran.
Since it is both an increasingly crucial source of foreign investment for Iran and controls the taps for much of Syria's water resources, Turkey is obviously capable of helping to coerce its neighbors.
They must, however, have an incentive to do so if anyone expects them be helpful. Further isolation is likely only to make them feel more threatened - and therefore more determined to undermine US and/or Israeli policies across the Middle East.

The US relationship with Iraq's Kurds has also been strained of late, with Kurdish officials in northern Iraq protesting against the US detention of five Iranian diplomats that had been visiting Iraq at the request of the Kurdish regional government.

On Monday, Iran opened border crossings with Iraqi Kurdistan that had been closed for weeks in protest of the detentions, the Associated Press reports.

The Iraqis have found themselves caught between two allies as they struggle to balance the interests of their main sponsor the U.S. military and Iran, a major regional ally. Iran holds considerable sway in Iraq as both countries have majority Shiite populations and many members of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ruling Shiite bloc have close ties with Tehran.
The border points, which had been shut down on Sept. 24, were reopened after a Kurdish delegation traveled to Iran to complain the region should not be punished for something the Americans did. Iraqi and Iranian authorities have claimed that the detained Iranian, Mahmoud Farhadi, was in Iraq on official business and demanded his release.

Meanwhile, US-Turkish ties are also being strained over a bill now in the US Congress that would label the massacres of ethnic Armenians in what was then Ottoman Turkey a "genocide," Reuters reports.

The Bush administration opposes a genocide resolution, but Congress is dominated by the Democratic Party, and, according to Turkish media, the Foreign Relations Committee will take up the issue on October 10.
"(The bill) would harm our strategic relationship ... and also damage efforts to develop relations between Turkey and Armenia," the state-run Anatolian news agency quoted [Prime Minister] Tayyip Erdogan as telling Bush in a telephone call.
Some political analysts say Ankara might consider restricting the U.S. military's use of Incirlik Air Base, a logistics hub for the Middle East, if Congress passes the bill.

Some Turkish politicians say the country has options to make life difficult for the United States if the resolution passes, according to a report in Today's Zaman, a Turkish English-language newspaper.

"We are not helpless if this resolution is passed," said Onur Öymen, senior lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and former diplomat, in a phone interview with Today's Zaman yesterday. He noted that Turkey had responded to a US decision to impose a military embargo on Turkey following the Turkish intervention in Cyprus in 1974 by blocking US access to all bases in its territory.
According to Öymen the US may lose a major route for logistics supplies for US troops in Iraq if Turkey decides to stop cooperating with Washington on Iraq, another possible measure to retaliate a congressional approval of the "genocide resolution."
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