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Turkey mulls 'invading' Iraq

Al Jazeera.net | January 28, 2007 
Jonathan Gorvett

Turkey's parliament went into secret session this week to debate sending troops to invade and occupy northern Iraq for security purposes.

More than 30,000 people have been killed in the confrontation between the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish army about 400 last year alone, according to Turkey's Human Rights Association.

Onur Oymen, the deputy chairman of the Opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), said: "Northern Iraq is the only place in the world where a terrorist group can operate without being pursued."

"If the Iraqis and the US are not prepared to take action over this, then we must."

Oymen referred to bases in northern Iraq belonging to the PKK which has been fighting Turkish troops since the 1980s to try to establish a separate Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey.

Northern Iraq has been effectively independent of Baghdad's control since the early 1990s.

"The US are doing nothing and the Kurdish authorities are doing nothing"

Onur Oymen, CHP deputy chairman

Casualties mounting

The PKK have bases around Kandili mountain in northern Iraq, and despite requests from Turkey for Iraqi and US occupation forces to attack these bases, Turkey says nothing has been done.

"The US are doing nothing and the Kurdish authorities are doing nothing," Oymen said.

"But we have the right to secure our borders and if they act against an intervention by Turkish troops, then we must take the necessary action in response."

US officials deny that they have been inactive. On January 17, US and Iraqi Kurdish troops moved in on the Mahmur refugee camp in northern Iraq, which Turkey had long claimed was a PKK training and recruiting camp.

However, the troops said they did not find any weapons or explosives.

At the same time, Nicholas Burns, the US ambassador to Ankara, said that the US was "trying to find what can be done to stop PKK attacks on the Turkish military" without the need for any further "resort to the use of force".

Kirkuk

Ankara also has concerns over the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, which will hold a referendum on its future status this year.

The oil-rich city has a Turkomen and Arab population that Ankara says is being sidelined by Kurds in a rush to take control.

A recent conference held in the Turkish capital to discuss the status of Kirkuk drew criticism from Kurdish leaders, who saw it as interference in Iraqi internal affairs.

This prompted Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, to hit back, saying that Turkey had every right to discuss the city and could not "remain indifferent to the plight of the Turkomens and Arabs in Kirkuk".

But Massoud Barzani, leader of one of two main Iraqi Kurdish factions, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), said last week: "These threats are worthless. We are not afraid of Turkey."

Border trade booms

Tough talk between Ankara and the Kurds in northern Iraq has done little to halt the flow of goods over the border.

Zeki Fattah, a senior economic adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, the northern Iraqi capital, said: "If you want to see what's really going on, go down to the border.

"At the border you'll see a queue of trucks, stretching for over 20km, bringing with them all manner of goods from Turkey."

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, business between these two former warring neighbours has mushroomed.

About 70 per cent of all government and private sector contracts issued in the KRG area have been to Turkish firms, according to the KRG's Kurdistan Development Corporation (KDC).

Mia Early, the KDC's head of investment promotion said: "At the end of 2006, the Erbil Chamber of Commerce had 385 active international companies registered.

"The majority of them were Turkish."

The Kurdistan Region in Iraq as the KRG calls the three, predominantly Kurdish northern Iraqi governorates under its jurisdiction relies a great deal on this trade with Turkey.

"There are four to five million people here in the region," Fattah said. "We do maybe $2bn to $3bn of trade with Turkey every year it's our main partner.

"The only discussion is over sending troops [to Iraq] on a limited cross-border operation against the PKK"

"The relationship is also becoming more cultural and organic too. We're now even trying to do a deal whereby Kurdish football teams will match up with Turkish ones."

Energy ties

Energy is also a big area of investment between the two neighbours. The Kirkuk region holds about 10 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.

Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group's deputy programme director for the Middle East and North Africa said: "Being landlocked, the Kurdish region is very dependent on Turkey to transport this oil Turkey also realises this."

The relationship may run two ways as well.

"As Turkey moves towards European Union membership, it will become a major energy conduit for the European countries," Fattah said.

"To help them in this, we want to become their back yard for oil and gas. We're looking to build refineries along the border and use our energy revenues to boost Turkey's prospects too.

"Under the future distribution of funds from Iraqi oil and gas, the Kurdish region will get an enormous increase in income, providing a major market for Turkey as well."

Tough election talk

Nevertheless, political jibes continue.

"This year is a double election year in Turkey," Hiltermann said.

"In April-May, there will be presidential elections and in October - November, parliamentary. Combine these with the upcoming referendum over the future of Kirkuk and there are some difficult consequences."

"Where is sending an army going to get anyone, especially in this region? The Americans tried that, and look where it got them"

Zeki Fattah, KRG economic advisor

Cengiz Candar, a Middle East expert and columnist for the Turkish daily Referans, agrees.

"The upcoming elections have given a big push for nationalist and populist rhetoric here," he said.

"No one is seriously thinking of sending troops to Kirkuk. The only discussion is over sending troops on a limited cross border operation against the PKK."

However, in the complex politics of the region, even that may not prove necessary.

"Being secret, the parliamentary session already dramatises the issue," Candar said. "It sends a signal of disquiet to the US and the Iraqi Kurds.

"This secrecy is its own drama of deterrence, which is why I don't think it's realistic to expect anything from the debate itself."

Meanwhile, convoys of lorries moving across Turkey's southern border are carrying washing machines and TV sets, rather than soldiers.

"These people who talk about sending in the tanks just don't see the big picture," Fattah said.

"Where is sending an army going to get anyone, especially in this region? The Americans tried that, and look where it got them."

 

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