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Kurds brace for Turks

A poll shows 83 percent of northern Iraq's residents oppose a Turkish military intervention.

As the US and Turkey approach a deal that would allow the US to insert troops and equipment into northern Iraq across Turkey's border, Kurdish leaders are ratcheting up their opposition to a Turkish military role in the area.

"Any [Turkish] intervention under whatever pretext will lead to clashes," warns Hoshyar Zebari, a senior official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which administers the western portion of northern Iraq. "It would not be helpful," he adds with a touch of understatement, "for the image and reputation of the US, Britain, and many of these countries that want to help the Iraqi people to see two of their allies - Turkey and the Kurdish parties - at each other's throats."

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Mr. Zebari's comments, delivered at a press conference yesterday in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish-run autonomous region in northern Iraq, constitute yet more trouble for US officials attempting to ready a second front against Iraq. Until now, Kurdish officials have criticized US plans to allow the Turks a military role without hinting at the potential for violence.

The problem for the Kurds - whose interests have never ranked high with their neighbors or distant powers - is that Turkish cooperation likely will trump Kurdish discomfort in the eyes of US war planners. The Turks are demanding billions of dollars in cash and loan guarantees, which the US is prepared to provide, and a military role in the invasion (see story).

Military issues are still being discussed, said Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis yesterday. Turkey wants to have troops in northern Iraq under its control - as opposed to US command - and to supervise the armament and disarmament of the Kurdish groups to avoid the weapons falling into the hands of Turkish Kurdish rebels.

The latter element particularly rankles Kurdish leaders, who see no reason to disarm before anyone else does.

"The price we will pay to get the second front is to let the Turks in," says Henri Barkey, a Lehigh University political scientist and former State Department adviser on Turkish and Kurdish affairs.

Letting the Turks in will allow them a say in the evolution of the new Iraq, but it may also provoke Iran and other countries in the region that also have a stake in shaping the new state.

The US and Turkey appear close to agreement on a plan which includes provisions for tens of thousands of Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq during a US invasion. Turkey says the forces are needed to prevent Kurds from fleeing into Turkey and to protect members of Iraq's Turkmen minority, with whom Turks share linguistic and ethnic roots.

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The Kurds say Turkey has another goal: To undermine the autonomy of the region the Kurds have governed for 12 years and prevent them from seizing control of Kirkuk, traditionally a predominantly Kurdish part of Iraq and the site of some of the country's most productive oil fields.

"People in northern Iraqi Kurdistan are more scared of the Turkish military than of Saddam," says Nasreen Sideek, minister of reconstruction and development in the KDP administration. A poll printed this weekend by an independent Kurdish newspaper indicated 83 percent of the residents of autonomous northern Iraq oppose Turkish "intrusion."

The Kurds - roughly 25 million stateless people spread mainly across Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey - have provoked anxiety and repression from these states since the breakup of the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century.

But the 1991 imposition of a "no-fly zone" in the northern part of the country and the withdrawal of Iraqi forces and officials have given them a space in which to fashion a quasi-state that sometimes seems like a way station on the road to independence.

Not at all, say Iraqi Kurds, insisting that while they want to preserve their autonomy in a new Iraq, preferably through a federal system of governance, they have no designs on statehood. Ms. Sideek, the development minister, argues that "we have been acting as Iraqis for the past 12 years," a period in which Iraqi Kurds might have made a decisive move toward independence. "I run this ministry according to Iraqi laws."

Even so, some Kurds do reveal more expansive political ambitions, albeit obliquely. "As a nation, we would like to have our own state," says Bapier Sleman, the head of a small political party based in Arbil called the Kurdistan Persecuted Peasants Movement. "But looking at the situation right now - regionally and internationally - the federal solution is the best for this stage."

Presumably it is this sort of comment that fuels Turkey's desire to hobble Kurdish autonomy. Turkey has brutally repressed a rebellion by its own population of Kurds - some 15 million people, or 20 percent of Turkey's population - and its officials may fear that a vibrant, largely self-governed Kurdish region in Iraq will inspire renewed nationalism among Turkish Kurds.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which runs the eastern portion of the Kurdish haven in northern Iraq, does not seem quite so strenuous in its anti-Turkish rhetoric. PUK leader Jalal Talabani indicated on Feb. 15 that he would limit himself to verbal criticism of Turkish and US plans for the invasion and its aftermath. "We cannot fight Turkey, we cannot fight the United States of America, but we will say our words," he told reporters.

As Mr. Talabani's comments suggest, Kurds recognize that they can do little militarily against Turkey, a NATO power whose forces are vastly superior to those of the Kurds. That is why some Kurds are considering nonviolent resistance against a Turkish presence.

As Sideek observes, "We cannot stop Turkey with guns; we don't have the capacity. The only way we can stop them is by using our bodies and we will do it if necessary."

KDP official Zebari argues that the Kurds do have some leverage with the US, more than any other group in the Iraqi opposition. "The only people who are on the ground are the two main Kurdish political parties," says Zebari, drawing a distinction between the KDP and PUK, and a wide variety of exiled groups and parties who have fought the Iraqi regime mainly from abroad.

The Kurds have succeeded, with crucial help from the US, in building two parallel but relatively democratic administrations in northern Iraq.

"Nobody can bypass us, nobody can ignore us in the long-term," Zebari says.