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War in Iraq:
View from Turkey

With Philip Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service

Friday, April 11, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

Turkish authorities, unhappy at seeing Kurds rush into Kirkuk in northern Iraq, say their continued presence would be unacceptable and have announced the dispatch of "military observers" there. Officials in Ankara stress the Bush administration approves but the two governments clearly diverge on the fast-moving situation in Iraq's Kurdish-inhabited and oil-rich northern hills.

Washington Post foreign correspondent Philip Pan was online from Ankara on Friday, April 11, at 11 a.m. ET, to talk about Turkey, its view of the war and concerns about the Kurds in northern Iraq.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Philip Pan: Hi folks, I'm here in sunny Ankara, the capital of Turkey, and I'd be happy to take your questions about the situation here for the next half hour or so.

washingtonpost.com: Philip, thank you for being with us today from Ankara. What is the reaction today in Turkey over the takeover of Kirkuk by the Kurdish militia? Will the Turks invade?

Philip Pan: I think the Turks are very upset about the takeover of Kirkuk, and Mosul too, by the Kurdish militia. They've been warning the U.S. not to let this happen for months. They're worried the Kurds will use the oil fields in these cities to finance an independent Kurdish state. And that's a nightmare for them, because they believe it would mean more violent separatist activity among their own Kurdish population.

But will the Turks invade? They had threatened pretty clearly to do so if the Kurds entered Kirkuk and Mosul, but they seem to be backpedaling pretty fast now. An invasion would seriously damage relations with the U.S., NATO and the European Union. With their economy on life support and depending on IMF loans, I'm not sure they're ready to risk a break with the West.

Bethesda, Md.: Why should Turkey have any say whatsoever about Iraqi Kurds in Iraq ? It is not their land, and the Kurds in Iraq should not be answerable to the Turkish government. It seems ludicrous that Turkey is even involved in this mess.

The next conflict I see is Turkey invading Iraq, and with the Iraqi military virtually decimated, they would have an easy time taking over the whole country.

Philip Pan: I don't think the U.S. forces would allow the Turkish military to take over Iraq. And the Turkish military definitely doesn't want to fight the U.S., its oldest ally.

Many people feel the Turks should have no say about what happens to the Iraqi Kurds in Iraq. You're right, it's not their land. On the other hand, the Turks believe they have a right to intervene because it would directly affect their security. They fought a 15-year guerilla war against Turkish Kurd separatists who used Iraqi territory as a base of operations. They certainly feel they have as much a right to intervene in Iraq as the United States and Britain do.

New Orleans, La: How realistic do you think Turkey's concerns are? Logically, Kurds with their own government should be easier to deal with for Turkey. At least in the long run, so why is Turkey still insisting that the Kurds don't break away from Iraq? If Turkey could assist the Kurds with economic and educational treaties wouldn't that be a safer way to decrease the tension and lead them on the way to becoming a peaceful neighbor state?


Philip Pan: It's hard to judge their concerns. But a minority of Turks do agree with you, that a Kurdish entity in Iraq would not be a disaster and could be of benefit to Turkey. These people argue that if the Turks granted more rights to its own Kurdish minority and improved their economic status, the Turkish Kurds would not support a separatist movement.

Most Turks, though, don't agree. They think if there is an independent Kurdish state, especially a wealthy one, in post-war Iraq, most of the Kurds in Turkey will want their own state too, or at least to secede and join the one in Iraq. My interviews with Kurds in the southeast suggest this is a serious possibility, even if greater rights are granted to the Kurds.

And it's not just the Kurds in Turkey. There are Kurds in Syria and Iran that might want to bolt too.

San Diego, Calif.: Recently, the Conflict Resolution Foundation (CRF),a Washington DC-based think-tank concluded a multi-million dollar study on democracy in Turkey. The study concluded that democracy is in jeopardy with the rise of the Islamic parties in the government. What are your comments on this in light of the war in Iraq?

Philip Pan: I haven't read the study, so it would be hard for me to comment. But I can tell you that many people in Turkey believe the so-called Islamists have come around in the last few years and now support democracy, because they see it as the only way to secure their rights to worship freely.

San Francisco, Calif.: Turkey threatens to fight the Kurds if the Kurds remain in the homeland where they recently returned. Turkey harmed the USA by refusing to allow our troops to enter Iraq from Turkey. The Kurds fought, and some of them died, helping our war in Iraq. How can the USA protect the Kurds as a reward for their help instead of betraying them at Turkish insistence?

Philip Pan: I think what we're seeing in northern Iraq now shows that the U.S. is more interested in protecting the Kurds than betraying them. Turkey's losing out in large part because it said no to the U.S. troops. A lot of people in the Bush administration still unhappy about that.

Richmond, Va.: Turkey seems to be making the assumption that a strong Kurdish presence in oil rich areas would mean demanding a piece of land from Turkey. How accurate is this assumption? Cannot Turkey see a working relationship with oiled Kurd neighbors may provide access to cheap oil for them?

Philip Pan: The Turks are very suspicious of the Kurds, and vice versa. There's a lot of bad blood between them historically. It's hard for many of them to imagine a working relationship with oil-rich Kurdish neighbors. After all, Turkey was founded in part on a myth that everybody in Turkey was a Turk. It's only recently that people have recognized the Kurds as an ethnic minority, and not just "mountain Turks."

Baltimore, Md.: Let's say the Iraqi Kurds do not get a homeland, but get instead a semi-autonomous state within a larger Iraqi nation. Would this be acceptable to the Turks, and if it does come to fruition, might we see Turkish Kurds begin to emigrate to Iraq?

Philip Pan: This is probably the most likely scenario. I don't think the Turks are going to have much say in the matter. They don't find it "acceptable" but I don't think they're going to go to war over it, especially if the U.S. backs it. I don't know if Turkish Kurds would migrate there. It would depend on what kind of immigration controls the Iraqi Kurds decide to impose, and whether people here are willing to leave their own homelands. There are significant family ties between Kurds of both nations, though.

Cortez, Colo.: I read on a Kurdish Web site that Turkey convinced the British that Kurds were not actually an ethnic group but were actually Turks. This resulted in the Kurds being denied a country when the British and French were parceling out the Middle East. Is this how Turkey justifies its treatment of the Kurds? It seems to me they would want a country for Kurds in Northern Iraq and maybe they could get their own Kurds to go there. I have never understood why, if the middle east doesn't like the way their countries were established, after 80 years, why don't they just fix it? They are supposed to be so much more enlightened than we.

Philip Pan: A lot of problems in the region can be traced to the boundaries drawn by the imperial powers. Britain drew up Iraq to include Kirkuk and Mosul in part so they could have access to those oil fields, regardless of the Kurds and Turks living there. At the time, Iraq was essentially under British control.

"Fixing" things now are difficult. People have moved all over the place. That's why it's so difficult to say who Kirkuk belongs too. The Turks who lived there during the Ottoman Empire? The Kurds who migrated there later? The Arabs who Saddam Hussein encouraged to move in after forcing Turks and Kurds out? It's a big mess, and the U.S. says it is setting up a commission to sort it out. Good luck.

Washington, D.C.: Do the people in Turkey feel threatened by the Kurds?

Philip Pan: Yes. More than 30,000 people died during that 15-year war with the separatists. And this was not a conventional war. This was a guerilla war, a terrorist war. Lots of innocent people killed by both sides. Many villages that were evacuated have still not been resettled.

Matawan, N.J.: The Turkish government has been nothing but unhelpful. The Kurds have lived in what was imposed upon them as "Northern Iraq". They have been an oppressed majority for one hundred years. They have been slaughtered in the thousands by the Hussein regime. At this defining time, how can we deny them some degree of autonomy and control over their own region, their own people and their futures in spite of the protests by own former friend Turkey?

Philip Pan: I think they'll probably end up with some degree of autonomy. The concern about an independent Kurdish state is that it supposedly would destabilize the whole region, including Turkey, Syria and Iran. So the official U.S. position is against such a state.

Washington, D.C.: If the U.S. creates a homeland for the Kurds, do you think the Turks will see it as their opportunity to ethnically cleanse the Kurdish areas? Or would the Turkish Kurds see it as their chance to secede from Turkey?

Philip Pan: More likely the latter.

Adana/Turkey: I am thinking that American media and especially some journalists trying to pressure to Turkish government(but also Turkish people) from America. And I observe that maybe they don't say lie but also they don't say the truth generally (their behaviors like all governments).

I can say same things about Turkish media. This is my command. And I want to ask that if also journalists can not be explain truths to the people who will protect ethic rules in this world?

Philip Pan: I'm not trying to pressure anybody. But there's not doubt some American media, particularly editorial writers and cartoonists, wanted Turkey to support the U.S. position. Is that pressure or just voicing an opinion?

As for Turkish media, the journalists I know here describe many more limits on freedom of expression.

Arlington, Va.: Yes, the Turks are fearful of a renewed Kurdish uprising in their own country if the Iraqi Kurds gain increased autonomy. But maybe its about time for Turkey to stop oppressing their own Kurdish population (20 percent of Turkey's entire population). If they did that simple, humane, and clearly unthinkable thing, they would not have to worry one whit about the Turkish-Kurds rising up.

Isn't this childishly simple formula even discussed among Turks? Don't they see what an obvious and peaceful solution to all these problems this would be? Or are they so burdened by racial hatreds, ingrained paranoia and deep-rooted Ataturk nationalism that they can't comprehend actually acknowledging their own Kurds and granting them the right to live "as Kurds?"

Philip Pan: No, this formula is discussed among the Turks. There is debate about it, and I suspect there will be more debate. But I think it will take some time for the nation as a whole to embrace it.

Scotland, UK: With all the looting going on in cities like Kirkuk and Mosul, what guarantees are there to protect the official records for real estate ownership and how would the potential ethnic cleansing of Turkomans by armed Kurdish fighters can be avoided?

Philip Pan: This is something the Turkish government is concerned about. If reports are accurate, those records are long gone.

New York, N.Y.: It is hard for us to understand this conflict without knowing the history behind it. When was this war between the Kurds and the Turks, and what was it about? Was it along time ago, how come we haven't heard about it before? Where did the Kurds live, in Iraq or Turkey, before this war started?

Philip Pan: Most people say the war began in 1984, but heated up after the 1991 Gulf War because the separatists were able to use northern Iraq as a base. These Kurds lived in Turkey. There was a cease fire in 1999 after the U.S. helped the Turks capture the separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Washington, D.C.: An overwhelming majority of the Turkish people were opposed to the attack on Iraq. Does the involvement of the Kurds now change public opinion, or are the Turkish people still opposed to war by a vast majority?

Philip Pan: Yes, most people in Turkey still oppose the war. A lot of people, though, are having second thoughts about not helping the U.S. They understand they would have had a greater say about northern Iraq if they had played ball.

Vienna, Va.: My feeling is that the Turkish government should have loudly vocalized their concerns to the American media and the United Nations before the war - LOUDLY!!!

By failing to do so, the right wing in our country is portraying them as one of those allies who say one thing, but really think another.

Turkey is one of several countries who had better figure out a way to get access to the American media and make their cases clear - including discussions of all the complexities associated with this. Otherwise, the American public will just follow the direction of Bush and simply tag countries as "good" or "bad" depending upon the agenda of the Bush team; and they will mindlessly rally behind the President on any action.

Philip Pan: I agree Turkey has done a pretty bad job of getting its message out.

Gullsgate, Minn.: Phillip Pan : How are our troops to appease both Kurds and Syrian border troops and not get caught in the crossfire? Seems like the real war has just begun? And a quote from editorial Turkish Daily News by I. Cevik on Gul visiting Syria, "Yes, the American embassy staff "may" show some understanding for Gul visiting Syria but we do not feel the same understanding will be shown by many of the Bush administration ... It would be very appropriate if Gul developed a heavy bout of flu ..." So Turkey sounds extremely nervous about appeasing us at this time? Are we not also a bit edgy here too, on what to do next for whom?

Philip Pan: The latest news is Gul has postponed his trip to Syria.

The government has tried to walk this weird tightrope between their role as U.S. allies and the public opinion against the war.

Frederick, Md.: What if the Kurds don't leave Kirkuk and the Turks invade? How can the U.S. respond?

Philip Pan: The U.S. could fight the Turks, or support the Kurds in doing so. What a mess that would be. I believe the Turks would probably try to make some show of force, like invading and taking some territory, that would not put them at risk of fighting U.S. forces but send a message.

Fort Lee, N.J.: They weren't there for us, why should we be there for them?

Philip Pan: A good question. Interestingly, the Turks say the same thing. They say the U.S. was not there for them after the 1991 Gulf War, when their economy began to fall apart and the U.S. broke promises to provide aid.

New York, N.Y.: I'm still surprised that Turkey would be so bothered if Kurds take a city in another country. If there were reprisals against ethnic Turks, yes, I can see the problem, But as is, I don't understand it.

Like the British trying to hang onto their fading empire by fighting Argentina over the Falklands, are the Turks dreaming of the Ottoman Empire ?

Philip Pan: I don't hear much talk of Ottoman Empire. They're just supersensitive about Kurdish separatism.

Arlington, Va.: Forget Turkey. Let the Kurds have control of northern Iraq. If the Turks threaten to invade bring it on. Their armed forces aren't much better than Iraq's. We don't really need Turkey anymore as an ally with Iraq now and the fall of the old Soviet Union. And we should cut off all aid to Turkey!

Philip Pan: It will be a while before Iraq could be considered a stable and powerful ally. But there has been a fundamental rethinking of Turkey's importance to the United States since the end of the Cold War. Many people believe we still need Turkey because it's a secular, Muslim democracy, the only one in the Middle East. Also, Iraq has a much better chance of getting off to a good start if neighbor Turkey is a friend.

Purchase, N.Y.: When I was in Turkey four years ago there were regular terrorist attacks by the PKK on Turkey. Our car was frequently stopped to check for bombs. Is Turkey still plagued by terrorist attacks from the PKK?

Philip Pan: No, things have improved markedly since the 1999 cease fire. There are still checkpoints in the southeast, but not like before. There is a worry, though, that the PKK will act up again after this Iraqi war is over. Is it over yet?

Pasadena, Calif.: Why did the Turkish populace not support a war against Saddam Hussein? Everyone can see what a brutal dictator he was, especially people in country living next door to Iraq.

Philip Pan: The Turks know Saddam is a dictator. They, like many people in the U.S. and the rest of the world, were just worried a war would make things worse. Also, as neighbors, they were worried they would suffer the economic consequences and perhaps even military consequences.

Mobile, Ala.: Is it really possible to prevent the Kurds from establishing an independent state? This notion of an "autonomous region" seems like a euphemism. Why would they, beyond U.S. pressure, want to remain a part of a new Iraq?

Philip Pan: U.S. pressure is a big factor. Also, they say they understand that enough people are against them forming their own state that it wouldn't be a viable project. So they're shooting for some autonomy within Iraq. In the long term though, I suspect that autonomy will increase and they may one day break away completely.

Madison, Wisc.: With all of the bad things we here about Turkish treatment of Kurds aren't there some good things? They have had a Kurdish president (Ozal) whom everyone loved and have many Kurds holding government office.

Philip Pan: Of course, there are many Kurds are involved in the Turkish mainstream. The bad things are still there though and hard to ignore. It's pretty amazing to me that Kurds can't open their own schools to teach their language to their children, or open their own TV or radio stations.

Philip Pan: Thanks everybody. Great questions. Cheers, Phil

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