TOPICS > Politics

Iraq Moves on Rebel Fighters to Smooth Relations with Turkey

October 23, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Turkish military convoys continue to roll toward the Iraqi border today. As some 60,000 troops massed along the frontier, international diplomatic efforts intensified to head off any Turkish incursion against Kurdish rebels in the mountains of northern Iraq.

Tensions have increased in the past two days, since 12 Turkish soldiers were killed and eight more abducted in a cross-border ambush by members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The ambush sparked demonstrations across the country, with thousands of Turkish citizens calling for an immediate strike against rebel bases in northern Iraq, where an estimated 3,000 PKK guerrillas are hiding.

Ankara says the PKK is responsible for the deaths of more than 30,000 people since the group launched its campaign two decades ago for an independent ethnic homeland for Turkey’s 12 million Kurds. After talks in Baghdad today aimed at diffusing the tensions, Turkey’s foreign minister rejected a PKK cease-fire offer and said there were several ways to fight the rebels.

ALI BABACAN, Foreign Minister, Turkey: Turkey’s a country which respects and defends political unity of Iraq, territorial integrity of Iraq. These are matters of principle for us. But on the other hand, fighting against terrorism is another matter of principle for us, and these two principles are not conflicting with each other. In order to fight with terrorism, we have many tools, economic tools, consul tools, political dialogue, diplomacy, and military action.

KWAME HOLMAN: For his part, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, himself a Kurd, hoped the stepped-up diplomatic activity would stem the crisis.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI, Iraqi Foreign Minister (through translator): I generally consider myself an optimist, but the crisis is complex and grave. It is a dangerous situation. We are hoping to not reach a breaking point. That is why we hope that the efforts we are making along with the Turkish government, including this visit and the other meetings to be held in the future, will achieve the desired results.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the PKK’s offices be shut down and its funds frozen. Last week, Turkey’s parliament gave its approval for the military to launch incursions against PKK rebels fighting in Northern Iraq.

Today, Turkish Prime Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in London for talks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, warned again Turkey would defend itself.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Prime Minister of Turkey (through translator): The Iraqi government must know that we can exercise this mandate, which we have received from the Turkish parliament, at any time.

KWAME HOLMAN: U.S. and Iraqi officials have cautioned that a Turkish military move could destabilize the region.

The Iraqi perspective

Barham Salih
Iraq Deputy Prime Minister
I believe this problem can only be dealt with through active cooperation and collaboration between the two governments, Turkey and Iraq. We seek good neighborly relations with Turkey.

JIM LEHRER: For the Iraqi perspective, we talk to the country's deputy prime minister, Barham Salih. He previously served as the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Mr. Minister, welcome.

BARHAM SALIH, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister: Thank you, sir, for having me.

JIM LEHRER: The government order today to close the PKK offices, what's the significance of that?

BARHAM SALIH: This is a reaffirmation of a standard policy of the Iraqi government not to let the PKK government operate in Iraq. And we certainly have moved against PKK offices in the past. We have moved together with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to stamp out illegal activities that were going on in certain refugee camps.

And we have been working on this, and the prime minister's statement today is a reaffirmation of that policy. And in the context of this looming crisis with our neighbor, Turkey, we want to make every effort possible in order to diffuse that crisis.

JIM LEHRER: As you know, the Turkish prime minister said today these kind of efforts by Iraq have been going on for 14 months and nothing has happened.

BARHAM SALIH: Well, the PKK problem is one that goes back to over two decades. And if one were to expect the government of Iraq to deal with this problem in a fundamental way while we are fighting this brutal war against international terrorism and so on, it would be a mistake.

The PKK problem has many dimensions to it. There are PKK elements within the borders of Turkey. If there were a military solution to this problem, I'm sure the Turkish military would have dealt with it.

I believe this problem can only be dealt with through active cooperation and collaboration between the two governments, Turkey and Iraq. We seek good neighborly relations with Turkey. We do not want the PKK or any other element to destabilize our region or destabilize our friendly relations with Turkey. We have a lot to work for, and we should not let the extremists drag us into an open-ended fight that will benefit no one.

JIM LEHRER: You say there is no military solution, but what is the solution, then, if it isn't military? How do you get rid of the PKK rebels?

BARHAM SALIH: I think what the Turkish foreign minister said about a range of options, including military options, should be all available to both governments, but with one basic principle: cooperation between the two governments.

Unilateral military action by Turkey, violation of Iraqi borders will be detrimental to Iraqi stability, will be detrimental to Turkish interests. The best course is for the two governments to work together. This is a common problem; we need to work it out together.

JIM LEHRER: Give us a feel from Iraq's point of view what the problem is. How many PKK rebels are there? How well-armed are they? And what are they actually doing in Iraq at this point?

BARHAM SALIH: Well, PKK is operating within Turkish borders, Turkish territory, and there are PKK elements possibly numbering in the hundreds. I've seen differing accounts, intelligence accounts of the numbers.

They are present in these Qandil Mountains, the high lands along the Iraq-Iran border. This is very difficult terrain. We have a problem there. We do not deny that there is a problem. This is our problem, as well as our neighbor's problem. Again, dealing with it, we have to do so together, with due respect to Iraqi territorial integrity and sovereignty.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let me -- I still don't understand exactly what the problem is on the ground from Iraq's point of view. What is it you want to do? You want to find the rebels in these high lands -- that's difficult -- and you want to arrest them, you want to kill them? What do you want to do?

BARHAM SALIH: We want to deny them presence in those areas. I mean, these are the high lands. These are difficult terrains. And it's not easy. I mean, a military option is not the only option to deal with this matter.

We have to work through a variety of options with our neighbor of Turkey to deal with this. But, I mean, to put things in context, like the Tora Bora of Iraq, I mean, in these high lands, and just to think that the Iraqi military can go in and take on these elements is not an option. And I don't believe it is an option for the Turkish military, either.

JIM LEHRER: It's not an option for you, for Iraq to send troops in there?

BARHAM SALIH: We believe that both governments, Turkey and Iraq together, can work this problem through an elaborate, deliberate policy of denying any hostile acts emanating from Iraqi territory against our neighbor, Turkey. This is not accepted policy by our government to allow any hostile act to emanate from our territory, but all need to understand this problem has been in the making for over two decades.

Iraq is going through a tough transition. Our neighbor should, instead of declaring threats of unilateral military action, should seek to work with the elected government in Baghdad, including the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north, so that we together can solve this problem. It is a problem for us and a problem for Turkey.

Potential damage to relations

Barham Sahih
Iraq Deputy Prime Minister
What we are saying, we have a problem. This problem has been in the making over the last two decades. If we want to solve it in a serious way, let us work through our channels of cooperation, both bilateral, as well as with the United States.

JIM LEHRER: If it does end up Turkey actually crossing the border with its troops or even with warplanes, would that be considered an act of war by your...

BARHAM SALIH: I believe it will be a flagrant violation of international law, violation of Iraqi sovereignty, and it will cause irreparable damage to our bilateral relations.

Let me affirm the following. Over the past four years or so, Turkish businesses have been doing businesses in Iraqi Kurdistan to the tune of billions of dollars. Iraq and Turkey have been developing their economic ties. We have a lot to work for.

This will cause terrible damage to our bilateral relations, and it will not be helpful to Iraq. It will not be helpful to Turkey. It will only help the extremists, whether they are along the PKK or other elements who want to destabilize the situation in the region. Let us work this problem together.

I believe genuinely that my government, the government of Iraq, including the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is a part of the Iraqi government institutions, are very serious to working with our Turkish partners to resolve this problem. This can only be done through cooperation, not through unilateral military action. That will be destabilizing for all.

JIM LEHRER: But if it comes to unilateral military action against only the rebels, that would still be considered by your government...

BARHAM SALIH: It will be a violation of our sovereignty. It will be a violation of our accepted protocols that recently, a few weeks back, actually, our two ministers of interior, Iraqi and Turkish ministers of interior, have signed a joint security protocol to deal with these very issues.

We have mechanisms to deal with this. We have, for example, a tripartite commission, including the United States, Turkey and Iraq, to deal with this very issue. Let us revive that tripartite commission. My government and that of Turkey, with the United States, can deal with this problem in what is conducive to all sides' interests.

JIM LEHRER: Your fellow officials of the Iraqi government have said publicly in the last two or three days, we are sympathetic with Turkey. In other words, we understand why Turkey doesn't want PKK rebels coming in, killing Turkey's soldiers.

BARHAM SALIH: Of course. Of course. We recognize legitimate security concerns of Turkey. We do not want our territory to be used by anybody to threaten our neighbors. By the same token, we do not want our neighbors to threaten our security, either.

What we are saying, we have a problem. This problem has been in the making over the last two decades. If we want to solve it in a serious way, let us work through our channels of cooperation, both bilateral, as well as with the United States. I believe this is the right way to do justice to all sides concerned.

JIM LEHRER: If this thing is not resolved peacefully, could this thing spiral out of control into a regional conflict?

BARHAM SALIH: I'm worried about that, and I'll tell you why, because the presidents of a neighbor of Iraq moving into Iraq unilaterally is terrible. It will invite other neighbors to intervene. And this is a stable part of Iraq, a prosperous part of Iraq, Kurdistan region. We should not squander it.

My appeal to our neighbor, Turkey, is to work this problem together. They have a partner in the government of Iraq, including the Kurdistan Regional Government. We have a problem. We recognize the security concerns of our neighbor, Turkey. We seek good relations with Turkey. We need to work it out together, not to use the threat of force or unilateral action by any side, because this will not be helpful neither to Iraq, nor to Turkey. It will only help the extremists.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Minister, thank you very much.

BARHAM SALIH: Thank you, sir.

The Turkish perspective

Nabi Sensoy
Turkish Ambassador to the U.S.
It is true that this is a very rugged area. But since they were not allowed to operate in Turkey, that's why they entrenched themselves in northern Iraq 10 years ago. And now it is the responsibility of the Iraqi government.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Turkey's position, and that comes from the Turkish ambassador to the United States, Nabi Sensoy.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome.

First of all, do you see the possibility of this spiraling out of control into a widespread regional conflict?

NABI SENSOY, Turkish Ambassador to the United States: Well, in the first place, it's our duty to really protect our people. And in doing that, of course, we're seeking all the peaceful ways of stopping this killing of Turkish people and destroying of Turkish property.

Now, these terrorists have entrenched themselves in northern Iraq for a long, long time now, more than 10 years. And they have claimed 35,000 lives so far. This is by far the deadliest terrorist organization in the world today.

So we have tried every way -- diplomatic way, peaceful way -- in order to convince our Iraqi neighbors to stop this atrocity towards the Turkish people by trans-border attacks, hit-and-run attacks.

JIM LEHRER: What is it you want the Iraqi government to do that it is not doing or has not done up until now?

NABI SENSOY: Well, the Iraqi government has international responsibilities in the first place not to let its territory to be used by terrorist organization, and a foreign terrorist organization in this instance. And we do hope that they will use every effort, every opportunity to really put an end to the presence of the PKK organization in their country.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with what the minister just said, that it's a very -- it's a difficult terrain, it's a difficult military situation, it's been extremely difficult for the Iraqis to do anything about this up until now?

NABI SENSOY: Well, with all due respect to the minister, I see that there are things that can be done, and these things have not been done so far. It is true that this is a very rugged area. But since they were not allowed to operate in Turkey, that's why they entrenched themselves in northern Iraq 10 years ago. And now it is the responsibility of the Iraqi government.

And now Iraq is a friendly country. The regime is a friendly regime. So that is why the Turkish people asked themselves as to their leaders why this friendly regime is not helping Turkey in order to put an end to the activities of the PKK?

So it is difficult, but so far, we worked together, with the United States of America, with the Iraqi central government, and unfortunately, the trilateral mechanism has not yielded any results. Now, the Turkish people want to see concrete results; we don't need any more talking about this issue.

The closing down of one office or another office is the least minimum that one can expect from the Iraqi regime. This happened years ago, as well. And what they did was they opened another office the next day next to the office that was closed. So what we need is, we need to close down the camps, the five camps that are now operating along the Turkish border with...

JIM LEHRER: Five camps, with how many people roughly?

NABI SENSOY: Well, we estimate -- the estimation is that there are 3,500 PKK terrorists in northern Iraq.


NABI SENSOY: Now, they were stationed in the Qandil Mountains in the first place, which is a rugged mountain, yes, but most of them, as we know, have now come down to these five camps along the Turkish border. And that is where they're operating from.

They conduct hit-and-run attacks to the Turkish territory. And that is why we want them to be closed as soon as possible in the first place.

And then, of course, we want every kind of logistical support that goes to the terrorist organization should be stopped immediately, because there is logistical support going from the northern part of the country. This has to be stopped.

We want the leaders, the high-ranking leaders of the PKK organization, to be apprehended and extradited to Turkey so that they can be brought to justice in Turkey.

Protecting Turkish borders

Nabi Sensoy
Turkish Ambassador to the U.S.
We are not going invade another country, a neighboring country. We're going to act against a terrorist organization. So we do need all the help that we can get from the Iraqi government in order to bring that about.

JIM LEHRER: What about the minister's point, that to do what you're -- if the Turkish army does what you are suggesting, which is the Iraqi government has not done this, so the Turkish government must, which is to get rid of these camps and do all these other things, this would be an invasion of the sovereignty of Iraq?

NABI SENSOY: Well, it's our international responsibility to really protect our borders and our own people. So if the Iraqi government says, "I'm not in a position to really do away with this threat to Turkey and the killing that goes on," then we have to assume our own responsibility to protect our borders and our own people.

And that is in line with international law; it is in line with international practice; and it is in line with all the Security Council decisions that we can think of on Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: What about what the two foreign ministers said today in Baghdad, what the minister just repeated, that there is an effort afoot, a serious effort afoot to do it jointly? In other words, the Turkish government and the Iraqi government get together and take a joint action. What do you think of that?

NABI SENSOY: Well, I think there will be that kind of awareness on the part of the Iraqi government to do all that, because this was absent in the past. Now, the principal goal of Turkey in what's happening in Iraq is to preserve the territorial integrity and unity of that country. Now, whatever we are forced to do at the end will be in line with that main objective.

We are not going invade another country, a neighboring country. We're going to act against a terrorist organization. So we do need all the help that we can get from the Iraqi government in order to bring that about.

JIM LEHRER: But if the Iraqi government doesn't provide the help that Turkey believes it needs, the Turkish government is prepared to take unilateral action, correct?

NABI SENSOY: Well, the Turkish government's successive governments have shown remarkable restraint not to use force. It is a last resort. And that is why we have not done that in the past, and we don't want to do it now, either, but I hope that we will not find ourselves in such a position as to act on this issue.

JIM LEHRER: Turkish troops moved toward the border, as you know. There are reports -- we reported it ourselves last night and again tonight. There are also reports that the Turkish government or Turkish army or the air force might do some bombing raids before actually putting troops on the other side of the border. Is that possible, as well, sooner rather than later?

NABI SENSOY: Well, in the first place, now there is the authorization from the parliament to the government to take all the measures that they deem necessary. But we're not at the point of intervention at this point, and we are trying to avoid it as much as we can.

But we need the support of the Iraqi government. We need the support and renewed efforts of the United States government, because we think that the United States has the power to use its good offices and influence on the Iraqi government and on the northern Iraqi administration.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.

NABI SENSOY: Thank you.