Friday, July 30, 2010

Escalating Turkish-Kurdish Hostilities Threaten U.S. Policy in Iraq

James M. Dorsey | 30 Jul 2010

World Politics Review

Escalating fighting between Turkish forces and Kurdish guerrillas in southeastern Turkey and predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq coupled with a high-powered Iraqi Kurdish campaign to achieve greater autonomy are complicating U.S. efforts to ensure that Iraq remains united once American troops leave the country. The increased hostilities couldn't come at a worse time for the Obama administration, which is preparing for next year's withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

The U.S. had hoped that closer Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish cooperation and Ankara's conciliatory moves toward Turkey's estimated 15 million Kurds -- who account for approximately 20 percent of Turkey's population -- would end a decades-old Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. Instead, Turkish warplanes are targeting PKK bases in northern Iraq with increased regularity, and the Turkish military is re-establishing checkpoints in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey. The U.S., which has designated the PKK a terrorist organization, is assisting Turkey by providing intelligence to its military and granting Turkish fighter jets greater access to northern Iraqi air space.

The hostilities threaten to jeopardize Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan's efforts to persuade the outlawed PKK to lay down its arms and end fighting that has cost some 45,000 lives, by granting Turkish Kurds greater political and cultural freedom. Despite the fighting and increasingly tough language towards the PKK, Erdogan continues to pay lip service to the notion that the conflict with the Kurds cannot be resolved with military means alone. Yet, with a controversial constitutional referendum scheduled for September, elections due next year and nationalist calls for a harder line towards the PKK, Erdogan will be hard-pressed to respond positively to recent PKK overtures for a ceasefire and a negotiated solution.

U.S. officials fear that the increased Kurdish violence could threaten an economic boom on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border and complicate the administration's efforts to ensure that Iraq remains united following the U.S. withdrawal. Washington is currently pressuring the Iraqi Kurds to moderate their demands for greater autonomy, for expansion of their territory to include the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and for independence from Baghdad in negotiating contracts with foreign oil firms.

The Iraqi Kurds are pushing back by investing heavily in a lobbying and public relations campaign in Washington. Iraqi Kurdistan now ranks among the top 10 foreign clients of several high-profile Washington-based lobbying and public relations firms. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, last week warned that Kurdish-Arab tension over Kirkuk and the powers of the Kurdish Regional Government constitutes the single largest threat to Iraqi stability. He said that despite U.S. efforts to ensure stability, the differences were unlikely to be resolved before U.S. troops leave the country.

Iraqi Kurdish resolve to further insulate their autonomous region from volatility elsewhere in Iraq has been strengthened by the Obama administration's refusal to coax Iraqi political leaders to finally form a government months after inconclusive parliamentary elections were held. U.S. officials say Vice President Joe Biden, during his July 4 visit to Baghdad, emphasized the need to form a government quickly, but refrained from discussing how it should be formed or who should be part of it. U.S. officials have reiterated that position since.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders say the U.S. reluctance to intervene more forcefully is allowing Iran to fill the vacuum. Iran is trying to persuade pro-Iranian cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to drop his opposition to a government led by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's State of Law coalition. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshayr Zebari, whose Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is part of the outgoing Iraqi coalition government, appealed to the Obama administration during a visit to Washington this month to help Iraqi politicians form a government. Speaking to reporters he warned that the longer Iraq "goes without a government, you will have more and more vacuum. That's why . . . time is of paramount importance."

Meanwhile, though Turkish military operations in northern Iraq are limited to remote mountainous areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, they put the regional government in an increasingly delicate position. Turkey has been pressuring the regional government to do more than simply tacitly agreeing to the anti-PKK strikes. The renewed fighting has dampened Iraqi Kurds' hopes that with greater political and cultural freedom for Turkish Kurds, the conflict on the other side of the border would be resolved.

The regional government, in an effort to navigate a way out of the impasse, has revived plans, in cooperation with Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), to organize a conference with participation of Kurds from Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria and various European countries to discuss the future of the PKK and pressure it to lay down its arms. The organizers believe that having already moderated its goals, the PKK may be amenable to a Kurdish initiative to effectively mediate with Turkey. The rebels have dropped their demand for an independent Kurdish state in favor of greater political and cultural rights in Turkey and an amnesty for PKK fighters. The conference has the backing of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a former Kurdish guerrilla leader.

But Turkey is wary that the conference, which is likely to propose a series of steps to be taken by both Turkey and the PKK, would mean internationalization of a conflict Ankara has long insisted is a domestic problem. Instead it has urged the Iraqi Kurdish and Iraqi governments as well as the U.S. to take military action against the PKK. Speaking on Turkish television, Turkey's top commander Gen. Ilker Basbug warned that "the presence of PKK bases in northern Iraq will certainly affect Turkey and Iraq's relationship and will negatively influence relations between the U.S. and Turkey." Privately, the Turks have gone so far as to warn Iraqi Kurdish leaders that continued escalation of hostilities inside Turkey may force them to invade Iraqi Kurdistan -- a move that could dash U.S. intentions to leave behind a stable Iraq capable of defending itself.

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