Iraq's Regional Echoes

August 11, 2004

Iraq's Regional Echoes

Realities in Iraq have limited the administration's once-expansive menu for justifying the war.

Realities in Iraq have limited the administration's once-expansive menu for justifying the war. Still on its list is the potential for Iraq to send democratic shockwaves through the Middle East.

President Bush has repeatedly invoked that prospect lately. But, like an incantation gone awry, Iraq is indeed transmitting shockwaves - but not the democratic kind.

Iraq has become an exporter of ethnic violence. And it is Turkey, a critical democracy in the region, that has been most affected. The troubles are also recoiling back on Iraq itself. Given this backdrop, Bush seems strangely detached from grounded realities as he carefully enunciates scripted platitudes regarding Iraq's regional impact.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein brought Iraqi Kurds the defeat of a tormentor, but also the end of a U.S.-led no-fly zone that had guaranteed sovereignty from 1991 to 2003. Uncertainty about Iraqi Kurdistan's future has prompted some Kurds to take up arms to defend it, emboldened by memories of persecution.

Turkey has been hit by Kurdish militancy, due in part to perceptions that it is working against Kurdish interests. Turkey has tried to rein in the autonomy of Iraq's Kurdistan, out of concern it would reawaken the secessionist ambitions of Turkish Kurds. Those efforts have put a new strain on Turkish-Kurdish relations, said Gulsun Bilgehan, a lawmaker with Turkey's Republican People's Party.

Kurdish political leaders are committed to talking through that diplomatic impasse, but other Kurds have taken up arms.

Turkey had been at peace with Turkish-Kurdish militants since 1999, when PKK insurgents called a unilateral cease-fire. Last month, the PKK called an end to that truce. Terrorism has followed.

Turkish police said the PKK is believed responsible for an attack targeting a governor in eastern Turkey earlier this month. Turkish forces have also clashed with the PKK along, and possibly beyond, the border with Iraq.

Thousands of PKK militants are believed to be hiding in northern Iraq, virtually unchallenged by coalition or Iraqi forces.

This is a shame, because Turkey needs a good relationship with the Kurds to maintain stability and continue its democratic evolution. And Kurdish militancy could undermine Turkey's bid to enter the European Union -- a prospect that could bridge Muslim and Christian worlds.

With so much at stake, Turkey has bolstered ties with Syria and Iran to discuss collective concerns over the Kurds. Syria and Iran also have sizeable Kurdish populations that the governments have clashed with since the war.

Turkey's strengthened ties with Syria and Iran - two countries it has traditionally had chilly relations with - could harm its traditional alliance with the United States.

Turkey's newly distressed relationship with Israel, meanwhile, could also have a Kurdish dimension.  In a June article in The New Yorker magazine, Seymour Hersh alleged Israeli forces were training Kurdish militias in northern Iraq. That report, which Israeli officials deny, would seriously alarm Turkey's leaders if it were accurate.

Syria and Iran have apparently been bolstering other Iraqi militias to counterweigh the strength of the Kurdish militia and to tie up U.S. forces. Iran is allegedly helping Moqtada al Sadr, while Syria could be aiding former Ba'athist elements.

The jockeying for militia proxies in Iraq is now a part of regional dynamics. It is causing a build up of arms that threaten coalition forces in Iraq, not to mention sectarian brinkmanship that will make it more difficult for Iraqi groups to strike a necessary power-sharing agreement. But things could get much worse.

"If Iraq becomes divided, what we see is that first Iraqis themselves will become involved in clashes ... and then neighboring countries will not stay away," said Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul in an interview in Ankara. Should Iraqis start fighting each other and foreign forces march into Iraq, U.S. forces could confront them (including allied Turkish forces), and foreign forces could even fight each other.

That dire prospect should shock-and-awe U.S. officials into action. A military response to concerns about foreign support of militias is not realistic, given stretched U.S. forces. The administration might have little choice but to negotiate with countries in region.

In crafting its Middle East policy, including its broad democracy-spreading agenda, the administration must recognize (to itself) that the Iraq campaign has weakened U.S. leverage in the Middle East, since foreign governments have new opportunities to undermine U.S. interests through subterfuge in Iraq.

Call that collateral damage.


Ximena Ortiz is the 2003-2004 recipient of the Pulliam Editorial Fellowship. She is writing the book, "The War, According to the World." A version of this piece appeared in UPI's "Outside View."