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Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds

October 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: United States and British fighter jets are already using the Turkish airbase Incirlik to fly patrols over northern Iraq as part of “Operation Northern Watch.”

Since the Gulf War, the fighters, operating under strict rules of engagement laid down by Turkey, have patrolled and protected a Kurdish safe-haven in northern Iraq from attack by Saddam Hussein. But so far, Turkey’s leaders have been reluctant to commit themselves publicly to wider participation in any future war.

General Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central command, was in Turkey Monday. He visited the tomb of Turkey’s national hero Kemal Ataturk in the capital city, Ankara, after visiting the high command. Franks was the latest in a series of U.S. officials to visit Turkey in recent months.

GENERAL TOMMY FRANKS: We made no requests of Turkey for specifics with regard to the positioning of any forces or any assets vis-à-vis operations in Iraq. No requests were made.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Formal requests may not have been made yet, but Foreign Minister Sukru Sina Gurel indicated earlier this month that negotiations are under way.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Can you tell us what Turkey wants from the United States in return for cooperating on Iraq?

SUKRU SINA GUREL: We feel that our strategic partnership should include every aspect of our common interests, and we feel that in a strategic partnership not only one side’s political priorities are brought into discussion or considered as a matter of cooperation, and this is the understanding that we’ve reached with our American friends.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What is the United States asking of you?

SUKRU SINA GUREL: I would not be able to go into detail in that issue, but of course, we will be cooperating with the United States in the future as we did in the past in order to create better conditions for peace and security in the wide region that Turkey and the United States are both active and effective at.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You won’t tell me what the U.S. is asking for?

SUKRU SINA GUREL: (Laughs)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The United States used Incirlik and other Turkish bases to launch attacks on Iraq during the Gulf War, and it is widely assumed among Turks that the U.S. will also need the bases this time around.

Some newspapers have also reported that Turkey expects to be asked to serve as a staging ground for U.S. ground troops as well. The key problem for Turkey is that the U.S. also needs cooperation from the Kurds of Northern Iraq, who have much experience fighting Saddam Hussein, and this means offering them something in return.

And as we reported last night, Turkey’s leaders say further Kurdish gains in Iraq could destabilize towns like Diyarbakir in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeast.

Kurds there have waged a long non-violent struggle for more civil rights, and guerrillas of the Marxist Kurdish workers’ party, the PKK, have also fought a violent struggle, partly based in Iraq, that wound down only three years ago. Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu.

SABAHATTIN CAKMAKOGLU ( Translated ): For a long time, close to 20 years, the separatist terrorist organization has used Iraq as its base. For this reason, northern Iraq has been the focus of our preventive efforts. We would be against any kind of new arrangement for the Kurds there.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The defense minister pointed out that in the safety of the no-fly zone, Kurds in northern Iraq have already built what comes close to being a separate state. They have their own currency, schools, and police, and last month they took very public steps to further assert their autonomy.

They convened a parliament and prepared a controversial draft constitution for an autonomous Kurdish zone inside a decentralized post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Turkey’s leaders condemned the parliament and the constitution as going too far. Cengiz Candar is a columnist for the daily newspaper Yeni Shafak.

CENGIZ CANDAR: They are so much focused on the disintegration of Iraq, which would result in an independent Kurdish entity under the American security umbrella, because otherwise it can’t survive. The Turks have made it very clear they won’t permit it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After a meeting of Turkey’s national security council in Ankara, earlier this month, newspapers reported that a decision was made to “Convey to the U.S. And the Kurdish group in northern Iraq that a declaration of a Kurdish state would be considered a cause for war.”

CENGIZ CANDAR: What the Turks asked from Americans, guarantees for the territorial integrity of Iraq.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In other words…

CENGIZ CANDAR: It’s not the kind of relationship that the Turks asking to the Americans, “please stop the Kurds from forming an independent state.” It’s a declaration on the Turkish part to the Americans that we will not permit it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Turkey’s military, shown here training to fight the mountain-based Kurds, confirmed recently that its troops have been in Northern Iraq for several years to prevent attacks on Turkey by the PKK guerrillas based there.

And there were unconfirmed stories in Turkish newspapers last Friday reporting that up to 12,000 more Turkish troops moved into Iraq last week in a show of strength. Turkey has the second largest army in NATO after the United States.

Some Turkish planners are arguing that still more troops should move into Iraq in the event of war. Retired Major General Armagan Kuloglu, a fellow at a think tank in Ankara, has written a widely circulated paper urging the Turkish general staff to take control of Northern Iraq if war breaks out to protect Turkey’s interests. Those interests go beyond the Kurds, he said, and include protecting the “Turkmen,” a Turkish-speaking minority in northern Iraq.

GEN. ARMAGAN KULOGLU (Ret.) (Translated): It’s essential that Turkey take control of northern Iraq during and after a military campaign.

First, it will enable us avoid a refugee problem. Second, it will provide the Turkmen minority with security of life and property. We share important values with the Turkmen in terms of culture, language, and history.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Turkmen, have lived for millennia in Northern Iraq, especially in the oil-rich region around the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Like Kurds, Turkmen want autonomy in that region in a federal Iraq if Saddam Hussein is overthrown.

This Turkmen family from Kirkuk is living in Istanbul, in Western Turkey, after having been on the move for several years. They fled from Kirkuk into the Kurdish safe haven nine years ago, escaping repression by Saddam Hussein.

Then several months ago, they fled what they called Kurdish repression in the safe-haven. The children have never known any safe place to live, they said.

MAN: They came here to save their lives. They haven’t gone to school. They want their kids to have a normal life.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Our interpreter this night was Orhan Ketene, a Turkmen who was visiting in Istanbul when we were there. He lives most of the time in Washington, D.C., where he’s pressing Turkmen claims in meetings between Bush administration planners and the Iraqi opposition.

There are somewhere between half a million and three million Turkmen in Iraq. The number is a matter of some dispute.

ORHAN KETENE, Iraqi Turkmen Front: Turkmen should have their rightful place per their population which is about 13 or 15 percent, and everybody should live in freedom and democracy, and they should have their political, social, and economic rights.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think the Turkmen should have Kirkuk?

ORHAN KETENE: Kirkuk is the main city of the Turkmen. Yes, Kirkuk is a Turkmen city despite all the claims for it by Kurds or Arabs.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The pro-Turkmen campaign is an indication of the competing claims by varying groups in Northern Iraq and shows the challenges faced by the Bush Administration in planning for the post-war period there.

For example, not only Turkmen and Kurds claim the oil rich region about Kirkuk and Mosul; some Turkish leaders do, too. Columnist Cengiz Candar says Turks are convinced Iraq could disintegrate in another war.

CENGIZ CANDAR: Iraq is a very artificial, superficial entity concocted by the British/French, and mainly British diplomacy — in the wake of the First World War while the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And so once again as it has through its history, Turkey is pursuing policies aimed at preventing a disintegration of Iraq and of Turkey itself.

Meanwhile, in the southeast in Diyarbakir, Kurdish leaders are trying to reassure officials in the capital city Ankara that whatever happens in Iraq, it won’t make Turkey’s Kurds more divisive or dangerous. Diyarbaki’s Kurdish Mayor Feredun Celik:

FEREDUN CELIK (Translated): It’s true that in the past fighting took place. Some organizations resorted to armed struggle, but what we want now is a democratic Turkey in which Kurds will have all the freedoms and human rights. Any anxiety on the part of Turkey in this respect is misplaced.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: People in Diyarbakir are waiting to see whether war will, in fact, break out in Iraq, while officials in Ankara maneuver to cut Turkey’s losses if it does.