Iraqi Kurdistan-A New Warzone?

Tensions along the Turkish-Kurdish border are escalating as PKK militants and the Turkish military clash. There could be serious consequences for Baghdad, Ankara and Washington.

Turkey has defied the wishes of the superpower this week in giving its military a green light to cross the border into Iraq, in the wake of ambushes apparently waged by a Kurdish rebel group that has a presence in northern Iraq. And today, Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships attacked suspected positions of the rebels close to the border with Iraq.

Turkey's decision could come to imperil the already precarious stability and prosperity of Iraq's Kurdish region. And while the stakes for the United States, Iraq and Turkey in Iraqi Kurdistan are substantial in broad economic and geo-political terms, one of the factors deciding those stakes is a rag-tag and seemingly ambivalent group holed up in rugged, mountainous terrain, numbering in the low-thousands.

In the face of the ambushes linked to the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) in which 15 of Turkey's crack soldiers were killed, and the subsequent escalation of tension with Turkey, the Kurdish leadership appears subdued, facing the situation with a certain aplomb-at least in rhetoric. In a telephone interview, the foreign minister for the Kurdish area of Iraq, Falah M. Bakir, said, "Of course we understand Turkey's concerns, but we don't believe that crossing the border will effectively address them." Mr. Bakir, who is in New York for a meeting of the UN General Assembly, said that his regional government and Turkish officials are reduced to communicating with each other through their statements to the media. In the wake of the recent elections in Turkey, Mr. Bakir said he and his colleagues had held out the hope that a constructive dialogue with Turkey would begin. "Unfortunately there is no dialogue right now. But we are ready for talks."

When asked about Turkey's concerns that Iraqi-Kurdish officials are not doing enough to counter the PKK, Mr. Bakir said that the group is trying to further its goals through peaceful, political aims, but when asked, he did not deny that the group could be responsible for the recent attacks in Turkey. He added that the group is spread out in a mountainous terrain on the border, does not have formal bases to attack and is not part of the official political structure of his regional government.

The long-suffering and persecuted Kurds have agitated both militarily and politically for greater autonomy or independence in the countries where they have a presence: Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. The PKK is to some the torchbearer of the Kurdish struggle. But the group has seen its capabilities severely diminished since its apogee in the 1990s.

In 1999, the group called a unilateral cease-fire that lasted almost until the end of 2005. Since then, the group has launched some seemingly half-hearted attacks in Turkey, but those have paled in comparison with the success of its recent ambushes.

According to some experts, Mr. Bakir's sober response may reflect the generally restrained response of the Turkish government up until now. Carole O'Leary, a Scholar in Residence at the American University Center for Global Peace, said the current Turkish government has been responsible in its reactions to PKK provocations. "While generally wary of Islamic governance, I have been very supportive of the actions of the ruling AK Party in Turkey," she said. She added that Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul must show the Turkish people that they can and will uphold law and order in Turkey. "A more nationalist, far right government," she said, "clearly by now would have intervened militarily in a major way" in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

On Tuesday, Erdogan's office said in a statement: "The order has been given for every kind of measure to be taken [to counter the PKK], including if needed a cross-border operation" into northern Iraq. Turkey has already been shelling parts of northern Iraq, said Professor Henri Barkey, chair of the international relations department at Lehigh University. Since it would be too difficult for the Turkish military to move large artillery into the areas where PKK fighters camp out, the Turks probably have in mind targeted air-strikes or limited helicopter commando raids, said Mr. Barkey. Such a scenario would not worry the Kurdish Regional Government excessively.

Still, an escalation of Turkish military activity within the Kurdish region of Iraq could be risky. If the Turkish military makes a mistake in the fog of war and hits civilians, Iraq as a whole would respond to Turkey, potentially causing far-reaching problems in bilateral relations. And then there is the question of civil-military relations in Turkey. The current government, with its ostensible Islamic leanings, already has strained relations with the military, which is seen by some as the caretaker of secularism in Turkey. In this regard, noted Barkey, the Kurdish issue could be the Achilles heel for the Turkish government, and could be used by the military to agitate the nationalist constituency in Turkey if the government isn't seen responding forcefully. An intentional provocation of Iraqi Kurds by the Turkish military to undermine the Turkish government is also within the realm of possibility.

For the United States, balancing the interests of the generally pro-American Iraqi Kurds, whose region is the only showcase of stability in Iraq, and its NATO-ally Turkey will continue to demand diplomatic dexterity, noted Barkey, something which is in short supply in the lower levels of the State Department, at the assistant-secretary level, he added.