Analysis: Turkey pits U.S. against Kurds
Published: Jan. 10, 2008 at 5:37 PM
By BEN LANDO
UPI Energy Editor
WASHINGTON, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- Turkey's president made it clear during his visit to Washington this week that his country will continue a hard-line approach in dealing with the Kurdish guerrilla campaign in his country and ensuring Kirkuk, Iraq's oil-rich northern city, doesn't fall under control of Iraq's Kurds.
After meetings with top officials, including President Bush, President Abdullah Gul exposed the fault line between U.S.-Turkey and U.S.-Kurd relations.
"Turkey and United States are partners in Iraq," he said Tuesday during a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Needless to say, we both have great stake in Iraq's security and stability and welfare."
Turkey says the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, based in the hard-to-reach northern Iraq mountains, crosses the border north to carry out its violent strategy of Turkish Kurd autonomy. Turkey said U.S., Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish leaders have not done enough to prevent attacks.
The future of Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, is a struggle two decades in the making. Gul called it "a powder keg" that could enflame the region if the "international community fails."
After raising the issue with Bush, Gul met with U.N. Security-General Ban Ki-moon and pressed for the United Nations to take an active role in solving the Kirkuk issue.
Bulent Aliriza, director of the Center for Strategic & International Studies' Turkey Project, said Turkey basically holds a three-point position on keeping Kirkuk from the KRG: "the city and the oil resources around it belong equally to Turkomen, Arabs and Kurds who live there; its incorporation by the Kurds would provide the economic underpinning of an independent Kurdish state, which Turkey opposes; and it's contrary to the vital interest of the Turkomen who are ethnically related to the Turks."
Kirkuk is the capital of Iraq's northern oil sector, with adjacent oil fields holding up to an estimated 15 billion of Iraq's 115 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and the start of a pipeline feeding Iraq's largest oil refinery as well as sending oil exports to market when it juts north into Turkey.
Kurds, Turkomen, Arabs and others composed its population in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein forcibly moved Arabs in and others out and redrew the provincial boundaries to put the oil-rich lands out of majority Kurdish provinces.
Iraq's Kurdish leadership ensured the 2005 Constitution contained language, however vague, to reverse Hussein's brutal move. Kurds, Turkomen and others were to be resettled back in Kirkuk (and other disputed territories touched by the late dictator). Arabs brought in were to be brought out.
Then a census was to be taken to determine eligible voters in "a referendum in Kirkuk and other disputed territories to determine the will of their citizens," according to a translation of the Constitution posted on the U.S. Commerce Department's Iraq Investment and Reconstruction Task Force Web site, "by a date not to exceed the 31st of December 2007."
A week before that deadline, the top U.N. envoy to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met in Kirkuk to negotiate a six-month timeline to work out a solution. Iraq's Kurds, intent and passionate about a referendum where residents could choose to join the disputed territories -- and its oil -- to the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, reluctantly agreed. They've been vocal in their critique of the national government for not putting enough effort into complying with the constitution's Kirkuk agenda and are ardently opposed to anything but the referendum in six months at the latest.
"As the primary Turkish goal is to prevent the incorporation of the city into the territory controlled by the Iraqi Kurds, they are happy with the postponement of the referendum and would not mind an indefinite postponement" Aliriza said. "It's as simple as that."
However, he said they were now pressing for a U.N.-negotiated "special status" for Kirkuk, like a region unto itself.
"The U.S. government is taking the Turkish position seriously," Aliriza said, "and this was a major factor in the U.S. decision to punt by getting a six-month delay."
"Clearly the U.S. has taken some hits from the Iraqi Kurds on the bombing of PKK targets," Aliriza said when asked what the U.S.-Turkish warming means for U.S.-Kurd relations.
"Whether the relationship suffers further we'll see," he said, adding the United States will be forced to take sides if Turkey escalates its effort to "finish the PKK" at the end of the six months.
Top Kurdish leader and KRG President Massoud Barzani canceled a meeting with Rice during her brief Kirkuk visit. Turkey had just bombed and invaded northern Iraq using U.S. intelligence, promised by Bush in November when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan was visiting.
The PKK, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, NATO, the EU and others, formed in the 1970s for the cause of Kurdish nationalism. Subsequent fighting and attacks are blamed on deaths in the upper 30,000s, both Turkish troops and civilians. Iraq's government, while calling the PKK terrorists, has also called on Turkey to work on improving the human rights of Kurds in Turkey. Iraq's Kurds have also said there is no proof attacks in Turkey were planned in or carried out by anyone based in Iraq.
A senior administration official said Bush and Erdogan didn't get specific in Kirkuk talks. For the PKK, Bush said support would continue, though he urged Ankara to talk with Iraq and Iraqi Kurds.
"We have (U.S.) cooperation," Gul said, "at the moment."