Yet another invasion of Iraq?
The northern Iraqi Kurds' days of peace and prosperity may be coming to an end, warns Gareth Jenkins
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A Kurdish woman stands in front of posters of the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party Abdullah Ocalan
Turkey's threats to launch an incursion into northern Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) appeared to be bearing fruit last week, attracting lots of media and other attention, but it was still unclear whether it would be enough to avoid a military strike. The Iraqi government and then the Bush administration promised to step up their efforts to eradicate the organisation. However, it remained unclear whether they would succeed or whether their pledges would be enough to prevent Turkey from taking military action by itself.
Turkey began massing an estimated 100,000 troops on its border with Iraq after a group of 150-200 PKK militants infiltrated from Iraq on 21 October and overran a Turkish military outpost, killing 12 soldiers and taking another eight prisoner. It was the third major attack by the PKK in less than a month and triggered an unprecedented public outcry in Turkey as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets calling for revenge. The Turkish government responded by threatening to launch a military operation against the PKK's main camps in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq unless the Iraqi authorities clamped down on the organisation's activities in the country.
The threat inevitably overshadowed a recent conference in Istanbul, which brought together Iraq's neighbours and representatives of the major international powers to discuss how to stabilise and rebuild Iraq but turned into a scrabble to find ways of preventing the country being invaded for the second time in less than five years.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the conference. In its closing statement, the conference promised to try to prevent Iraq being used as a platform for attacks on neighbouring countries. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told a news conference that the Iraqi government would be prepared to contemplate taking military action against the PKK.
Although they welcomed the Iraqi government's promises, Turkish officials complained that they were not enough. Privately, they acknowledged that there was little the government in Baghdad could do. Not only did it lack the military capability to move against the PKK's presence in the Qandil mountains but, in practice, northern Iraq is administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Yet Turkey refuses to enter into direct negotiations with the KRG as it fears that, by recognising its authority, it would encourage the Iraqi Kurds' dreams of eventual independence; something Turkey has long feared could inspire its own already restive Kurdish minority.
As Turkish troops continued to mass on the border, Erdogan flew to Washington amid increasing signs that the US was finally beginning to take the Turkish threats seriously. On Monday, Erdogan and Bush met for 90 minutes at the White House. In their subsequent joint press conference, Bush announced that the US would establish a tripartite mechanism, including representatives of the Iraqi government and serving high- ranking members of the US and Turkish military, to coordinate action against the PKK. He also promised that the US would provide Turkey with actionable intelligence on the activities and movements of PKK militants in northern Iraq. In addition, he pledged that the US would use its political influence to try to ensure that the PKK was eradicated from Iraq. "The PKK is a terrorist organisation," he said. "They're an enemy of Turkey, they're an enemy of Iraq, and they're an enemy of the United States."
Bush did not provide a timetable for action against the PKK. But the general assumption amongst most neutral observers was that the US's apparent commitment to doing something substantive would be sufficient to forestall a Turkish military incursion.
However, that is not how his pledges were interpreted on the Turkish side. Speaking a few minutes later during a question and answer session at Washington's National Press Club, Erdogan declared that his government would use the authority recently granted it by parliament to launch a military strike against Iraq. A few hours later, in an address at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Erdogan commented that a previous tripartite mechanism involving retired military personnel had been ineffective and that he did not expect the new one to produce results either.
"We cannot achieve anything with these mechanisms," he said. Erdogan noted that diplomacy was merely part of a process that would end with military action and implied that he believed that he had received US approval for an incursion into northern Iraq. "Nobody has told us not to launch an operation. Everybody is saying that we are right," he said. Not surprisingly, the headlines in the Turkish press on the following day described Erdogan's visit as securing a "green light" for a military incursion into Iraq.
This is almost certainly not the message the US was trying to give Turkey. Rather it appears to have been trying to buy time by promising to solve the problem without Turkey launching a military incursion. However, Erdogan's public statements after his meeting with Bush make it clear that, from the Turkish perspective, a military incursion is still very much on the agenda; and, even if Ankara is prepared to wait a little to see whether the US can deliver on its promises, it will not wait long.