21 May 2006

Iran and Turkey fire salvo over Iraq

Iran and Turkey fire salvo over Iraq
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Both Turkey and Iran have been launching military raids into northern Iraq against a Kurdish paramilitary group that is based there, posing a dangerous new threat to stability both within Iraq and to the region.

The Iraq-based Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), labeled a terrorist group by the United States, Britain and the European Union, is a paramilitary party that preaches Kurdish nationalism, especially in Turkey, where it is demanding political rights and better living standards for the country's 12 million Kurds.

Turkey recently launched a massive military operation involving more than 250,000 troops against the PKK (nearly double the number of US troops in Iraq), concentrated in the mountains along Turkey's borders with Iran and Iraq. Extensive incursions into northern Iraq have been reported, aimed at cutting off the PKK's supply lines to Turkey from its camps in northern Iraq. Turkey also claims that "the PKK has recently increased its activities and obtained weapons from Iraq".

Iran, meanwhile, has begun attacks on PKK units based in Iran, and the Iranian military has entered Iraqi territory in hot pursuit of PKK militants. This represents a different approach from recent years, when Turkey regularly accused Tehran of turning a blind eye to the PKK in Iran.

The Baghdad government has objected, claiming a violation of its sovereignty, but both countries insist that they are acting in self-defense.

The PKK wants to create a Kurdish state out of southeastern Turkey, northeastern Iraq, northeastern Syria and northwestern Iran. PKK broadcasts have claimed that 2006 would be "a year of destiny" for Kurdish nationalism. The PKK rebellion, which has hit Turkey the hardest, has led to the death of 35,000 Turks (including 5,000 soldiers) and cost the Turks billions of dollars.

The PKK's long history of violence - and the violence used in turn by the authorities - all but ceased after its leader Abdullah Ocelan was arrested in 1998, but it resumed activities in June 2004, claiming that the Turkish military was still attacking it.

In a message to Iraq, Turkey said, "They [PKK] are the infiltrators and we are protecting our border. Do not allow the terror network to use your territory. Fight against the terrorists who will only terrorize you in the future." Another communique issued by Turkey addressing the Iraqis read, "We are not considering ending our activity there [in Iraq] for as long as the PKK is also present and active in that area."

The Turks claim that up to 4,000 members of the PKK have been using Iraq to launch attacks on Turkey.

General Hilmi Ozkok, commander of the Turkish army, asked whether Turkey planned to seek US permission before further invasions of Iraq, confidently replied, "We cannot take a decision of that kind based on the US. Every country is sovereign. Every country makes its own decisions. If the conditions change, you act by the changing conditions."

To avoid a confrontation, a flurry of diplomacy has taken place in Turkey. Over the past week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Ankara. So did members of the US House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee, and Ali Larijani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief negotiator on Iran's nuclear portfolio.

Most interesting of the meetings was that of Larijani, who was received with great honor in Ankara. For six hours, Larijani met with Yigit Alpogan, the secretary general of the National Security Council, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Larijani warned the Turks against PKK infiltration and the chaos prevailing in Iraq, saying, "We are very worried as a country from this region. If the string breaks, and it is heading that way currently, it will not be possible to repair it. We are telling you this plainly now. Later, do not come and complain that we didn't warn you."

He continued, "Currently, there is solidarity in your country. But if chaos breaks out, this solidarity will also fall apart. Don't be like Iraq."

The Turks, especially Erdogan, are serious in wanting to eradicate the PKK threat coming from Iraq. As much as they value their relationship with the US, they will not tolerate a Kurdish presence on their border.

The Americans, although they have helped fight the PKK in the past, nevertheless have recently been passive toward its activities in Iran and Turkey. So has the European Union. While both the US and the EU "oppose" PKK strikes on Turkey, they also oppose Turkey's militarization of the crisis.

Now Turkey has found an ally in the form of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has shown the will - and the army - to support the Turks in combating the PKK.

Iran has arrested 50 PKK members, and a similar crackdown has taken place in Syria, a onetime ally and host of the PKK and currently a good friend of the Iranians.

Ahmadinejad's support for Turkey's offensive on the PKK in Iraq is naturally in Iran's own interests, but it is also aimed at acquiring a new, strong friend for Tehran in its confrontation with the international community over its nuclear program. Reportedly, Ahmadinejad even told the Turks that he would share his nuclear technology with them.

Erdogan had also met with Ahmadinejad in Baku, Azerbaijan, on May 5 on the sidelines of the ninth summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization, shortly before Larijani's visit to Tehran.

This meeting, along with the visit of a high-level Iranian official to Turkey, certainly angered the Americans. Turkish media responded by claiming that the PKK attacks on Turkey were allowed by the Americans and the two prominent Kurdish leaders in Iraq - Masoud al-Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, and the US-backed president of the country, Jalal Talabani.

While in Ankara, Larijani further upset the Americans by revealing that he had documents proving US meetings with the PKK (which it considers a terrorist organization) in Mosul and Kirkuk last month. This was at the level of military commanders, he said. Larijani asked, "If the US is fighting terrorism, why then is it meeting with the PKK?"

Talabani said that in his latest meetings with Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he had been given assurances that the Turks would not invade Iraq because the US would not let them.

click the link above for the rest of the article

No comments: