On Wednesday, the Turkish military announced a “temporary security zone” across three provinces, Hakkari, Sirnak and Siirt, near the Iraqi border where they will limit land and air travel until Sept. 9.  “We are not there to penalize the people of Iraq,” says Seyfi Tashan, director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute at Bilkent University in Ankara, the capital. “But we can’t tolerate the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) receiving assistance to kill Turks.” 

About 100,000 Turkish troops are massed along the Iraqi border as part of annual spring manoeuvres causing speculation that Turkey is preparing for a large-scale incursion into Iraq. The Turkish government, along with the US and Iraq, denied a web site report on Wednesday that Turkey had already sent 50,000 troops into Iraq to confront PKK militia forces.

This week Turks buried seven paramilitary policemen (jandarma) killed in a PKK attack on a local police station in Tunceli, a province in central Turkey. That strike followed a suicide bombing in Ankara on May 22 that killed seven civilians and is suspected to have targeted Chief of Staff  General Yasar Buyukanit’s convoy as it passed.  Turkish officials attributed the bombing to the PKK but the PKK has denied responsibility.

“The PKK must be eliminated as a problem between Iraq and Turkey,” Oguz Celikkol, Ankara’s special envoy to Iraq, said last week after a visit to Baghdad. “All the explosives used by the PKK in Turkey are traced back to Iraq.”  At present the Kurds are America’s only dependable allies in Iraq. With American funding and weaponry, Kurdish militia forces have been used as security forces in Arab areas of Iraq, inevitably arousing Turkish suspicions that some of their resources have found their way to the PKK. 

The result, says Metehan Demir, the Ankara bureau chief of Turkey’s Sabah newspaper and a military specialist, is growing anti-US feeling. “When any Turkish soldier dies, immediate focus [is] on the US – this is the public view, that the US is not acting sincerely for Turkey as an ally.”  “The Americans are not doing this deliberately” says Mr. Demir, “but the Americans are not acting as much as they can [to deal decisively with the PKK in northern Iraq], according to Turkey.”

There’s also a growing concern in Turkey that the US and its Israeli ally, which has long-standing ties to the Kurds, plan to use the wave of Kurdish nationalism to weaken and destabilise not only Turkey but also Iraq, Syria and Iran, which all house Kurdish minorities within their borders

Hints from the Turkish military that it might act to prevent Kurds from gaining control of Kirkuk (the oil-rich northern Iraq city that Turkey fears could enable Iraqi Kurds to declare independence) caused Mr. Barzani, leader of northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, to threaten: “Turkey is not allowed to intervene in the Kirkuk issues, and, if it does, we will interfere in Diyarbakir’s issues and other cities in Turkey.”

“It’s foolish to play the PKK card,” says a senior Western diplomat in Ankara. “Whatever the final shape of northern Iraq, those people are not going to be able to rely on Iran or the Shiite government in Baghdad. Export and import routes, for oil and goods, is through Turkey.”  Northern Iraq is dependent on Turkey for food, cement, refined fuel, 20 percent of its electricity,  and 15 to 20 percent of its water

“The Turks can’t work out the endgame right now, how they would exit Iraq after a military operation. That, not U.S. and EU strictures, is holding them back,” said Rosemary Hollis, Middle East expert at the British think-tank Chatham House.  Like any “asymmetric” war waged by a conventional army against an elusive guerrilla enemy, a decisive victory is by no means assured.

Sources:  Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, Gulf News, Reuters AlertNet News

Bob Wilson lives and writes in Turkey

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