The Turkish-American row over the deployment of US troops is helping to focus attention on the security implications for northern Iraq in the event of a military offensive to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Leaders of Kurdish groups, which currently dominate northern Iraq, vow that any attempt by the Turkish military to exert influence over the region will be met with armed resistance.
The Turkish parliament on March 1 rejected a proposal to allow the deployment of US troops along Turkey's frontier with Iraq. Upon the outbreak of the widely anticipated offensive against Saddam, those troops would be used to open a northern front against the Iraqi military. On March 5, Turkey's top military official, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, voiced strong support for the US deployment. Leaders of the governing Justice and Development Party, meanwhile, indicate that the government will resubmit the deployment proposal for legislative consideration.
The prospect of a northern front is a matter of concern for Iraqi Kurdish leaders. On February 26, Kurdish leaders hosted a meeting for all Iraqi opposition groups in the northern town of Salahaddin to demand a political role after a potential US-led military campaign against Iraq. Turkey and the US have spent weeks trying to hammer out a deal on allowing US troops into Turkey, and Iraqi Kurds are dismayed by the prospect that such an agreement might grant the Turkish military a large role in northern Iraq.
Kurdish political leaders so far appear to accept that they would have to relinquish some of their de facto autonomy to a post-Saddam Hussein administration in Baghdad. But the Iraqi Kurds are concerned that a Turkish military presence in northern Iraq would severely limit their current influence and privileges in northern Iraq. The Kurdish parliament voted unanimously on 25 February to call on the United States to prevent Turkish troops from entering northern Iraq with the American invasion force, in the event of a war.
Turkish troops have been active in northern Iraq in numbers ranging from 3,000 to 30,000 since the 1991 Gulf War and have never encountered significant resistance. However, the stakes are higher now, and the key question is what the post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi administration will look like. The inability of both Turkey and Iraqi Kurdish groups to iron out differences makes policy coordination highly unlikely, further complicating US plans to open a northern front against Iraq.
The February 26 meeting of the 50-member advisory committee, including Kurdish groups, was originally set for mid-January but repeatedly delayed. It aims to set up a leadership committee that could form the core of a future Iraqi administration, a prospect overshadowed by a long history of bitter squabbling among opposition groups. Fighting for influence in the Kurdish zone flared into violence in the mid-1990s. The Kurdistan Democracy Party (KDP) led by Massoud Barzani fought the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani. The groups agreed to a ceasefire in October 1996, committed to power sharing with the 1998 Washington agreement, and since September 2002, they have shared control of the mountainous area through parallel, cooperating administrations.
To alleviate Kurdish concerns, US President George W. Bush's special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad, has reportedly told Turkey that all military movements in northern Iraq and elsewhere must be coordinated with Washington. Khalilzad also reportedly insisted that Turkish troops must agree to leave Iraqi territory shortly after the reestablishment of peace in the country. The timeline that Turkish authorities have in mind for any withdrawal, however, is probably longer than that which US officials envision.
The Turkish government's primary concern is that Saddam Hussein's ouster would create a power vacuum. In such a void, Ankara fears, Iraqi Kurds might attempt to establish a Kurdish state. Such a development would be anathema to Ankara, which has waged a long domestic struggle to crush a Kurdish separatist movement.
Turkey has long been wary of Kurdish self-rule in northern Iraq, due to concerns that this could revive secessionist demands in Turkey's southeastern region from the outlawed terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkey's struggle against the PKK has claimed over 30,000 lives since 1984 but has largely died down since the Turks captured and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan four years ago. Turkish authorities have already made clear that Turkish troops in northern Iraq would seek to root out PKK elements, as well as to stem refugee flows into Turkey.
Under current conditions, the US- and British-enforced no-fly zone protects Kurds from persecution by Baghdad. Kurdish civilians receive a portion of Iraq's oil revenues via the UN oil-for-food program and also benefit from oil smuggling through northern Iraq to Turkey and Iran. With a working parliament, several Kurdish-language TV and radio channels closing linguistic gaps across different regions, and Kurdish universities, Iraqi Kurds enjoy statehood in almost all aspects, except formal name.
Editor's Note: Kaan Nazli is a research Analyst at Eurasia Group.
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