By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 6, 2007
CAIRO -- Turkish leaders this week will give visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki what Turkish military commanders and analysts said could be a final warning to act against anti-Turkey Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq -- or to stand by while Turkish forces go after the rebels themselves, risking a new front in Iraq's war.
Leaders of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party appear to be in agreement with Turkey's generals that the time has come to move against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by its Kurdish initials, PKK, in its bases in the mountains of northern Iraq, former generals and a military expert close to the Turkish military's general staff said.
At least 30,000 people have been killed since the Kurdish rebels launched a campaign in 1984 for an independent Kurdish homeland in eastern Turkey. Clashes and bombs this week killed 14 Turkish soldiers and rebel fighters. The rebels also kidnapped eight residents of a Kurdish village in the east.
Turkey accuses Iraq's Kurds -- who have built a nearly autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq under protection of the U.S. military since the early 1990s -- of giving the Kurdish rebels a haven and allowing them free passage back and forth across the Iraqi border into Turkey.
"The Turkish people want the government to do something, and in this case, the Turkish military and government now coincide," retired Turkish Maj. Gen. Armagan Kuloglu said in a telephone interview from the Turkish capital of Ankara.
"It could be any moment, basically," said Zeyno Baran, a senior fellow and director at the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute in Washington who is familiar with the Turkish military command.
"Both the civilian and military leadership believe we really have to do something about it, that this is getting ridiculous," Baran said.
Turkey's military, outraged at what it says have been escalating attacks on its troops by the PKK, has been warning for months of an imminent invasion of northern Iraq in pursuit of the PKK.
The timing of a Turkish attack is a matter of "whenever it's convenient," Baran said. "August or September," she added.
Baran and some others expect U.S. forces to join in if Turkey does act against the rebels in northern Iraq. The scenario most often cited is an operation involving U.S. and Turkish special forces already in northern Iraq.
"I do believe that the Americans . . . are probably getting ready to do something jointly with Turkey, but they really don't want the Turks to go on their own," Baran said.
Robert D. Novak wrote in a syndicated column that appeared July 30 in The Washington Post that Eric S. Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and now an undersecretary of defense policy, had secretly briefed U.S. lawmakers that the United States was planning a covert action with the Turkish army against the PKK in northern Iraq. Edelman added that "the U.S. role could be concealed and always would be denied," according to Novak.
The leak of the alleged plans for a U.S.-Turkish operation makes a fully covert mission now impossible, noted Strategic Forecasting, a private intelligence-analysis agency based in Austin.
With the alleged planning made public, "the United States is betting that the Iraqi Kurdish leadership will succumb to pressure to act against the PKK itself, and thus preclude the need for a major Turkish incursion -- which would be an extremely messy situation considering the bloody result of having two NATO allies, PKK rebels and battle-hardened pesh merga forces fighting it out in mountainous terrain," the group wrote, using the Kurdish term for fighters. Strategic Forecasting was founded in 1996 by George Friedman, a political scientist and former college professor.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, for months has resisted Turkish appeals for action in Kurdish northern Iraq. Any major operation would mean diverting U.S. troops needed for operations in the rest of Iraq and risk mass defections by Kurdish forces from the Iraqi army.
U.S. action against the Kurdish separatist fighters also would expose American forces to retaliation by PKK forces in northern Iraq, one of the few relatively calm and prosperous regions in the country.
U.S. reluctance to hit the PKK has angered many in Turkey and damaged relations between the two NATO allies. A recent Pew public opinion survey showed only 9 percent of Turks viewed the United States favorably. The governing party's slowness to agree to appeals by the Turkish military for permission to invade northern Iraq helped elect a pro-invasion nationalist bloc to parliament in elections last month.
Iran, also combating Kurdish rebels on its soil, has used the situation to court an alliance with Turkey. Last month, the two countries signed a major gas line proposal, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited Maliki to the Turkish capital, after Erdogan's party triumphed in the elections. The prime minister accompanied his invitation with a new public warning that Turkey's military would strike the PKK in northern Iraq if the United States and their Iraqi allies failed to do so. Maliki is due in Ankara on Tuesday.
Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers have urged Maliki to tell the Turkish leader to stay out of Iraq's affairs.
Turkish forces for years have launched occasional, small-scale raids and artillery strikes into northern Iraq in pursuit of the PKK.
Kurdish leaders now in the Iraqi government at times in the past paired up with Turkey to fight the PKK. But while Iraq's two main Kurdish parties have their own objections to the PKK, there also is sympathy for the PKK among Iraqi Kurds, making it politically difficult for Kurdish leaders to be seen as endorsing an attack on the rebels.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders also appear to regard the PKK as providing useful leverage in any negotiations over Kirkuk, an oil center in northern Iraq, said Omer Taspinar, a Turkish expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Kirkuk residents are to vote by the end of this year on whether to annex the city to Iraq's Kurdish north. Many Turks object to the annexation, in part out of concern for the fate of Kirkuk's Turkmen population.
Some Iraqi Kurds want to trade their agreement to crack down on the PKK "as a quid pro quo for Kirkuk," Taspinar said.
A former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Morton Abramowitz, urged the Iraqi Kurds to move against the PKK. The United States should press the Iraqi Kurds to do so -- and send U.S. forces into action against the Kurdish rebels if the Iraqi Kurds refuse, Abramowitz said by telephone from the Washington area.
"It's time for the Kurds to act," Abramowitz said. "If they don't, I hope the Americans will act. And if there's another serious incident, I think the Turks will act. I think you have a very dangerous situation."