Iraq instability threatens Turkey
By Scott Taylor
Friday 06 May 2005, 9:36 Makka Time, 6:36 GMT
Over the past few weeks, the media reports coming out of Iraq have
focused extensively on the insurgents' escalating attacks against US
military and Iraqi police forces.
Overshadowed by the coverage of this series of suicide bomb attacks
has been the dramatic and ominous development of unrest along the
For the first time since US President George Bush launched his
military intervention to topple Saddam Hussein in March 2003, the
violent anarchy which ensued throughout Iraq is now spilling over into
On 20 April, following 10 days of sporadic combat, the Turkish
government announced its defence forces had killed 33 Kurdish rebels
after they had crossed the Iraqi border.
Although the military did not release its own casualty figures, Namik
Tan, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, estimated that Turkish security
forces "suffered between 15 and 17 fatalities in the clashes with the
These losses are significant. However, Turkish intelligence estimates
that since the beginning of April some 1500 Kurdish guerrillas have
crossed into eastern Turkey via the mountain paths along the Iraq border.
These fighters belong to the hardline Kurdish separatist group known
as the PKK (the Kurdish acronym for the Kurdistan Workers Party) which
has been linked to terrorist activities.
In the early 1990s the PKK waged a long and bloody struggle to gain
independence for the Kurdish majority living in eastern Turkey.
However, by the end of the decade, Turkish security forces had clearly
gained the upper hand militarily, and political reforms were eroding
popular support for the separatist movement.
With the 1999 arrest of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK
remnants fled into the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq.
As part of an internationally brokered ceasefire, the PKK camps in
Iraq were monitored by the United Nations. That supervision ended
following the US-led intervention in Iraq and the UN's subsequent
decision to withdraw all of its personnel until the coalition forces
could establish a secure environment.
Despite repeated requests by the Turkish government, the US-led
coalition forces did not attempt to secure or contain the PKK camps
subsequent to the UN pullout.
"The Americans regarded the Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq provinces
as stable, and therefore they have been content to let [the Iraqi Kurd
leaders] Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani have a free rein," said
professor Umit Ozdaq, director of the Ankara-based Centre for Eurasian
"Unfortunately, that decision has led to this current crisis."
There is no question that the two rival Iraqi Kurdish leaders enjoy a
strong measure of American support and tolerance.
Despite their appointments to prominent positions within the new Iraqi
government - Talabani as president and Barzani is director of the
Kurdish provinces - the former war lords still maintain their own
private peshmerga (militia) armies, and their own private Asaish
(secret service) agencies.
More importantly, US authorities have allowed the Iraqi Kurds to
steadily entrench their control over the oil-rich northern Iraq city
Should Kurdish claims to Kirkuk be formally recognised, the oil
revenue would be sufficient to make an independent Kurdistan
The Turkish government has always maintained that such a move would
not only violate the rights of the (Turkish-speaking) Iraqi Turkmen
population of Kirkuk, but that an independent Kurdistan might also
re-ignite the separatist movement in eastern Turkey.
This latest incursion of PKK guerrillas into Turkey proves such fears
of renewed violence are well founded. "At the moment, the PKK have
been prevented from entering the major cities and towns," said Namik Tan.
"They are only operating from the mountains and caves."
In order to keep the Kurdish incursion in check, the Turks have
deployed the 7th Army Corps along with air force units to augment the
already considerable Jendarma (interior police) in the border region.
Although they publicly distance themselves from the PKK extremists,
moderate Kurdish politicians are using the renewed guerrilla activity
to press the Turkish government for additional concessions.
"What they are asking for is autonomy within a federation, but this
would simply be the first step towards independence," said Professor
Ozdaq. "From a Turkish perspective, that is unacceptable."
The Turkish government's goal is to quickly neutralise the PKK
guerrilla threat before it can gain widespread popular support.
During nearly 10 years of fighting, the previous Kurdish insurrection
in Turkey left some 30,000 people dead, and this already impoverished
region was subjected to widespread destruction.
"The people of eastern Turkey are weary of war and the political
reforms made towards improving Kurdish civil rights have eliminated
many of the root causes of the separatists," said Namik Tan.
"Unfortunately, the situation in Iraq is allowing leaders such as
Barzani to use the PKK to further destabilise the region."
Iraq-based US forces, already unable to contain the insurgency in the
Sunni Triangle, are stretched too thin at the moment to even
contemplate a clampdown on the Kurdish leaders.
However, as the incursion of the PKK into Turkey illustrates, the
magnitude of the US failure to seize control of the northern Iraq
border and to demobilise the peshmerga has yet to be fully recognised.
Former Canadian soldier Scott Taylor is the editor of Esprit de Corps
military magazine and a veteran war correspondent. He has visited Iraq
20 times since August 2000 and is the author of Spinning on the Axis
of Evil: America's War against Iraq and Among the Others: Encounters
with the Forgotten Turkmen of Iraq. Last September he was held hostage
for five days in northern Iraq by Ansar al-Islam Mujahadin.
The opinions expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily
reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.
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