U.S. Urges Turkish Restraint On Kurds

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is feeling heat from his military, which is suspicious of his acquiescence to Washington on the Kurds.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is feeling heat from his military, which is suspicious of his acquiescence to Washington on the Kurds. (By Burhan Ozbilici -- Associated Press)
By Molly Moore and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 14, 2007

ISTANBUL, Oct. 13 -- U.S. officials began an intense lobbying effort Saturday to defuse Turkish threats to launch a cross-border military attack against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and to limit access to critical air and land routes that have become a lifeline for U.S. troops in Iraq.

"The Turkish government and public are seriously weighing all of their options," Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said after meetings with Turkish officials in Ankara, the capital. "We need to focus with Turkey on our long-term mutual interests."

But even as the U.S. official appealed for restraint, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking at a political rally in Istanbul on Saturday, urged the parliament to vote unanimously next week to "declare a mobilization" against Kurdish rebels and their "terrorist organization," the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Fears of a new frontier of instability in the troubled Middle East sent oil prices soaring Friday to a record high of $84 a barrel. U.S. military officials predicted disastrous consequences if Turkey carries out a threat to strike northern Iraq, and they warned of serious repercussions for the safety of American troops if Turkey reduces supply lines in response to a congressional vote last week on the killing of Armenians nine decades ago.

The confluence of two seemingly unrelated events could not have come at a worse time. Thirteen soldiers killed last weekend in Turkey in the most deadly attack by Kurdish separatists in more than a decade had barely been buried when the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington approved a resolution labeling as genocide the mass killings of Armenians during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey does not deny the deaths but argues that they occurred as part of a war in which Turks were also killed.

"This is not only about a resolution," said Egemen Bagis, a member of the Turkish parliament and a foreign policy adviser to Erdogan. "We're fed up with the PKK -- it is a clear and present danger for us. This insult over the genocide claims is the last straw."

Domestic politics in both countries -- the Armenian lobby that pushed for the genocide resolution in the U.S. Congress and growing pressure on the Turkish president to stop Kurdish rebel attacks -- collided to create an international crisis.

"It's a difficult time for the relationship," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Saturday during her trip to Russia, noting that Fried and another senior State Department official had traveled to Turkey to reassure the Turks "that we really value this relationship."

A recent poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a transatlantic public policy organization, found that Turkish attitudes toward the United States were becoming increasingly hostile. Using its 100-degree thermometer scale, the fund found that Turkish "warmth" toward the United States had plunged from 28 degrees in 2004 to 11 degrees in 2007.

"Each time we have a soldier killed, many people look at Washington and they believe that Americans are responsible for this because they prevent us from stopping the infiltration into Turkey," said Onur Oymen, deputy chairman of the opposition Republican People's Party.

Erdogan is feeling increased heat from his military, which is suspicious of his Islamic roots and acquiescence to Washington in taking no action against Kurdish rebels in Iraq. His public is angry over the genocide vote, frustrated with a European Union that is unwilling to admit Turkey to its club, and outraged that the United States has turned its back on what Turks consider their own fight against terrorism, a 23-year-long war with the Kurdish separatists.

"The Turkish newspapers are printing full front-page pictures of dead soldiers with Turkish flags," said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The accusation is that this guy is soft on the Kurdish issue and does only what the U.S. wants him to do."

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