Halfway to a Kurdish Triangle in Iraq

America has joined a list of countries with a "Kurdish problem.

America has joined a list of countries with a "Kurdish problem." For other governments, this problem has taken undignified dimensions -- eliciting brutal, village-razing, knocks-in-middle-of-the-night style repression.  To be sure, America's potential troubles with Kurdish Iraq will not take these dynamics, but the United States will likely be reckoning with challenges in the area.  These could be manageable, if Turkey doesn't unceremoniously enter the fray.  If Turkey were to eventually deploy troops to Iraq or otherwise provoke conflict, part of Iraq could erupt in civil war. 

The United States managed to pressure and cajole Turkey into agreeing to send troops to Iraq on Oct. 7, when the Turkish parliament approved a 1-year deployment. The decision, which cost America about $8.5 billion in loans and the Turkish government considerable political capital, was watched with alarm in Iraq.

The Iraqi Governing Council's collective and firm stance against Turkish troops has stopped deployment for now. On Nov. 5, the president of the council, Osman Faruk Logoglu, said, "the question of sending Turkish troops is closed." Still, America's gyrations are worrisome.  The original plan of sending Turkish troops reflects poor U.S. strategizing, and, though Iraqi opposition was a foregone conclusion, America apparently offered Turkey handsome incentives to send troops. The plan was so advanced it appeared the United States was going to shrug off Iraqi concerns. But the Bush Administration recently did an about-face and said there would be no Turkish deployment without Iraqi approval - a move which bitterly embarrassed Ankara. This untidy back and forth makes it appear no one in the administration is fully in charge of Iraq.

Turkey has the ability to cause a civil war in Iraq's Kurdish area, even without a troop deployment, by pitting Iraqi Kurds against Iraqis of Turkish origin (the Turkmen). It could also incite Kurd-on-Kurd fighting, as it has done in the past. Also, Turkey has asked the United States to move against members of the PKK that it claims are hiding in the Kurdish area of Iraq. The PKK, a Kurdish rebel group once active in Turkey, called off its 4-year cease-fire with Ankara in September.  A military confrontation could be volatile.

The United States should be wary of Turkey's request and tread lightly in the Kurdish area. Instability in Kurdish Iraq would now be America's problem. The Kurds in Iraq, which make up about a third of the country's 25 million people, view Turkey as responsible for a 15-year war with their ethnic brethren in Turkey. Although hostilities between Ankara and Turkish Kurds have ebbed since 1999, Kurds would be highly suspicious of any Turkish military involvement in Iraq.

"Turkey is not a neutral party. They have their own agenda," Mohammed Ihssan, Minister of Human Rights for the Kurdistan Regional Government, told me in a telephone interview. And if Turkey were to send troops to Iraq, other neighbors would feel justified in becoming involved, he added. "If we are going to let Turkey in, who can keep Iran out?" he asked. He added that Turkish troops, once they are deployed, are difficult to usher out, citing Turkey's military presence in the island of Cyprus since 1974.

Kurds in Iraq are watching Turkey. On July 4, U.S. troops detained 11 Turkish Special Forces for plotting to assassinate Kirkuk's Kurdish mayor. In April, a Turkish Red Crescent convoy was found to be carrying weapons and explosives, identified as humanitarian supplies, at a checkpoint. Also, U.S. military authorities accused Turkish Special Forces of posing as aid workers to smuggle munitions to ethnic Turks in Iraq. For other Iraqis, a Turkish deployment would conjure the Ottoman occupation of Iraq, which ended in 1917. Iraqis in the 21st century would view such a deployment as 19th century Americans would have a British military mission.

The October suicide bombing of the Turkish embassy demonstrates the aggression a deployment could provoke. Despite these legitimate fears of escalation, some in America's "punditocracy" have bullied the Kurds for opposing Turkish troops.  The United States will be grappling with an empowered Kurdish people in Iraq. Having suffered centuries of repression, the Kurdish people have long had an eye towards self-determination. In Iraq, thanks to U.S.-enforced no-fly zones in the Hussein days, they have exercised that autonomy for over ten years. They are going to doggedly defend it on the Iraqi Governing Council, which is heavily weighted with Kurds, and beyond.

By no design of its own, the United States may have given the Iraqi Governing Council a boost by having to honor its opposition to Turkish troops. The Bush Administration made an offer the council had to refuse and gave the Iraqis a chance to exercise more sovereignty than the administration had bargained for. And though it may be difficult for America to turn to Turkey for help again, the issue has highlighted to the world Iraqi concerns over Turkish involvement, and may have sent the Turks a succinct message to stay out.

 

Ximena Ortiz is the 2003-2004 recipient of the Pulliam fellowship for editorial writers. She is writing a book, The War, According to the World, on the global policy repercussions of the Iraq war.