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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)

That perception prompted Erdogan to issue a warning to Washington this week: "If you're against [the rebels], make your attitude clear and do whatever is necessary. If you cannot do it, then let us do it."

A major operation by Turkey "would start a war with the Iraqi Kurds," said Henri Barkey, a former State Department official who now heads the International Relations Department at Lehigh University. "Northern Iraq is the only place that the U.S. has managed to achieve a modicum of stability and [it] is afraid that a major operation would unleash violence in the north.

"I'm sure the U.S. would say okay to a limited, one-time operation," Barkey said. "But everyone knows a one-time operation is not going to solve the problem. The Turks want a carte blanche to do whatever they want to do. That's the problem."

Marc Grossman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and undersecretary of state for political affairs during President Bush's first term, said there were three reasons the United States has been reluctant to take action in northern Iraq against the PKK: U.S. troops are already fully engaged, and the north is generally stable. Plus, he said, "there's a lot of sympathy in some parts of our government for the Kurds and some residual disappointment for the Turkish government decision on March 1, 2003," to forbid the United States to launch an assault in Iraq through Turkey.

Human rights groups have long criticized Turkey for the brutal treatment of its Kurdish minority and its efforts to suppress the Kurdish culture and language within Turkish borders.

The PKK problem had become so frustrating to both Turkey and the United States that the retired U.S. and Turkish generals appointed in 2006 to help resolve some of the tensions have left their jobs: The Turk was relieved of his position just before he planned to resign, and the American offered his resignation letter weeks ago, though it was accepted by the Bush administration only this week, according to U.S. and Turkish officials.

Bagis, the soft-spoken Turkish lawmaker and Erdogan adviser, has what for the moment might be one of the world's least enviable positions -- chairman of the Turkey-USA Interparliamentary Friendship Caucus, a group of Turkish lawmakers who meet regularly with their counterparts in the U.S. Congress.

He returned here from Washington on Friday after a failed push to head off the genocide resolution. On Saturday, in the midst of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the Ramadan fasting period, Bagis's young children were pleading with him to get off the telephone and play.

But Bagis could not shake the frustration of the past several months. He and other Turkish officials, including Erdogan, have been warning the Americans for months that the situation on the Turkish-Iraqi border had deteriorated.

The PKK leadership operates freely in northern Iraq, they argued. The rebels have established camps and a safe haven, and the attacks in Turkey are becoming increasingly bold. Neither the United States nor the Iraqi government had taken any action to arrest PKK leaders or curb their activities.

Even though the U.S. government was the first foreign country to declare the PKK a terrorist organization, it appeared to many Turkish officials that the United States was setting a double standard in not allowing them to launch an attack against the rebels to protect their soldiers and citizens.

After the past two weeks' spate of PKK attacks, which killed a total of 30 soldiers, police officers and civilians, Turkish authorities arrested suspected rebels who were carrying U.S. military-issue 9mm Glock semiautomatic pistols. U.S. officials said at the time that the weapons had been stolen.

Bagis's response: "The good news, we have found your stolen weapons; the bad news, they're killing us."

He added, "And while all this is going on, all of a sudden this resolution comes along with this ally you consider as your most important strategic partner in the world, your strong NATO ally -- insulting you with something that is claimed to have happened back in 1915.

"It's not like we're saying, 'Oh, it never happened,' " Bagis said. "We're saying, 'Let the historians judge it, not the politicians.' "

Wright reported from Washington.

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