Iraq, the U.S., and the PKK

The Iraq war has brought Turkey in conflict with the U.S., Israel and the Iraqi Kurds. Turks express a litany of complaints about the U.S., including its failure to pay Turkey promised damages incurred in the first Iraq war, the lack of notification about invasion plans and timing in the second Iraq war, the deaths of its truck drivers carrying goods to Iraq, and what is seen as America embracing the Iraqi Kurds. Northern Iraq is currently a safe haven for Kurdish separatist militants of the PKK, whom Turkish officials and other establishment figures characterize as “vicious terrorists.” Most important, Turkish leaders from all segments of society see the U.S. as the problem in Iraq, not the solution. There is always a price to pay when you pull out a gun, they say. They maintain that the U.S. has lost the credibility to bring about a peaceful solution because of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal; the collateral damage incurred by the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq; and the military’s failure to win the hearts and minds of the people. Turks were particularly upset by the U.S. bombing of a Turkmen city caught in the crossfire in northern Iraq in September 2004. They recognize that the collapse of Iraq could lead to horrendous regional conflict but they want stability achieved by the United Nations, not a predominantly American force.

Turkish military involvement in Iraq is not out of the question. If Turkish citizens believe that the Turkmen community in Kirkuk is in danger, the Turkish military would be strongly tempted to intervene in northern Iraq regardless of U.S. strategy. Such action would be a major setback to EU negotiations even if tolerated by Americans. As a counterbalance to this threat, it is important to note that Turkish business in Iraq is booming. The more Turkish companies invest in northern Iraq, the fewer reasons Turkish or Iraqi Kurdish politicians have to disrupt the status quo. From the Iraqi Kurdish point of view, Turkey is a natural export outlet: Iraqi Kurdish exports, including their major oil pipeline, transit Turkey to the Mediterranean, so it is also in the Iraqi Kurdish interest not to rock the boat.

Some circles in Ankara believe that Israel, its long-time ally and trading partner, has been encouraging Iraqi Kurds to form their own independent state that would be a new ally for Israel in the region but a threat to Turkey whose Kurdish population might renew their separatist claims. Turkish Foreign Minister Gul has been quoted in the American press as accusing Israel of providing military training to Iraqi Kurds. In an effort to offset this threat Turkey has recently made overtures to Iran, which has problems with its own Kurdish population. In 2003 there were four high-level visits by Turkish leaders to Iran and six return visits by their Iranian counterparts.

Turkish officials complain that they are experiencing weekly attacks from PKK militants based in Iraq. They point out that the U.S. State Department recognizes the PKK as a terrorist organization. Yet when Turkey asks why U.S. forces don’t root out the PKK, American officials reply the U.S. military’s hands are full. Turks understand that the Iraqi Kurds are America’s only allies in Iraq at present and this makes them uneasy.

The Turkish government and the PKK have had a long history of violence. PKK militants, considered freedom fighters by many Kurds, have killed tens of thousands of Turkish citizens. Particularly in the early 1990s, Turkish security forces have retaliated harshly, arresting numerous intellectuals for expressing Kurdish nationalist sentiments and driving several hundred thousand villagers from their homes in southeastern Turkey.

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