While straining under occupation, Iraq faces a possible Turkish invasion in the north, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti
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A photo taken in November 2006 of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels taking positions as they storm a hilltop during military exercises in the mountains of northern Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region
US occupation forces shelled Sadr City in north Baghdad, killing and wounding 49 people. A US statement claimed the victims were "insurgents" who attacked US forces in the past two years. Iraqi police sources, however, said the dead, who included women and children, were ordinary civilians.
Television networks aired pictures of children under the age of four among the casualties. In his weekly meeting with David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki denounced the operation, expressing shock at the loss of civilian life. The Americans promised to investigate the incident.
Signs of fracture have once again appeared within Shia ranks. The Sadr group froze its agreement with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) after SCIRI leader Ammar Al-Hakim called for federalism in the north and centre of the country. A curfew was declared in Karbala, 100 kilometres south of Baghdad following exchanges of fire. In city council meetings, pro-Iranian and anti-Iranian officials were once again at loggerheads over claims that Iran was trying to control local politics. Five members of the Sadr Mahdi Army militia were killed in clashes with police in the city.
As Turkey contemplated an incursion into Iraqi territories, the Iraqi National Assembly scrambled to defuse the situation. It authorised the Iraqi government to take any necessary measures to resolve the crisis while calling on Turkish authorities to rethink their policies. A statement by the Iraqi parliament termed the decision by the Turkish parliament to sanction military operations inside Iraq "unhelpful to relations".
After issuing the statement, the parliament went into closed session during which the foreign, defence, and national security ministers briefed parliamentarians on current developments. According to sources within parliament, Iraq's defence minister admitted that the Iraqi army was not a match for Turkey. The defence minister disclosed that Turkey has been keeping advance posts inside Iraq for some time.
Tensions between the central government and Kurds are on the rise. Sami Al-Askari, adviser to Al-Maliki, lashed out at Kurds for calling on the Iraqi army to take action. "The Kurds only remember that we have a central government at times of crisis. It is only in such times that they sing the praises of national solidarity and Iraqi sovereignty."
Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim, leader of the (Shia) Iraqi Alliance Bloc, called on the Kurdish administration to clamp down on terror groups stationed in the north. Turkomen official Fawzi Akram said that he opposed any foreign intervention in the country, adding that Iraq should not allow terrorists free movement in the north.
Kurds reacted with fury. "The Iraqi army is incapable of protecting two streets in Baghdad, but the peshmerga (the Kurdish militia) is capable of defending the north," a Kurdish official said. Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government, held a news conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and said that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) must not be described as a terror group.
To make things worse, the PKK struck again. Its fighters killed 17 Turkish soldiers in an attack near the Turkey-Iraq border. Turkey said that the assailants came from bases in northern Iraq.
Talabani and Barzani meanwhile dismissed Turkish demands that Iraq hand over PKK leaders. In a joint news conference in Irbil, the two called for a peaceful solution to the crisis. Talabani, however, admitted that PKK fighters would have to lay down their weapons or leave the country. Talabani denied that Maliki signed an agreement in Ankara last month allowing the Turkish army to cross Iraqi borders.
For his part, Barzani said that the Kurdish administration was not taking sides in the dispute between the PKK and Ankara, expressing hope that no further acts of hostility would be committed. "If both sides insist on fighting, we wouldn't take part in the hostilities, but we intend to defend ourselves at all times," Barzani said.
Turkey doesn't seem in a mood to talk, but the Iraqis are not giving up. "The Erdogan government told Baghdad that it wasn't willing to receive a delegation at the moment," Mahmoud Othman, a leading Kurdish figure, told reporters. However, Vice-president Tariq Al-Hashimi flew to Ankara for talks. And a delegation led by National Security Minister Shirwan Al-Waeli is due to arrive in Turkey within days.
In Kirkuk, demonstrators marched in protest against Turkish threats, waiving Kurdish and PKK flags and carrying pictures of imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.