FTL, thanks for the correction (Saladin vs Suleiman), above.
Turkey deploys extra troops to Iraq border as tension with Kurds grows
Â· Erdogan's forces ready for action against PKK
Â· Fear of regional instability as US forces pull back
Friday June 1, 2007
A Turkish military build-up on the northern Iraq border is fuelling fears of a confrontation between Ankara and Kurdistan's semi-independent government that could further destabilise the region as US forces begin to pull back.
Turkey's armed forces chief said yesterday the army was prepared at any time to start cross-border action to halt attacks inside Turkey by the separatist Kurdistan Workers' party, which has bases in Iraq.
"As soldiers, we are ready," General Yasar Buyukanit said.
But the general said Turkey's parliament must first agree the aims of any intervention. "The political authorities need to decide this. We can't know whether we will go there and fight only the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' party] or deal with [Iraqi Kurdish president Massoud] Barzani as well."
The Turkish army has deployed additional tanks and troops to the border area this week for "spring manoeuvres". But the military moves, although apparently limited so far, have been accompanied by a rising crescendo of public and political demands for action to curb PKK attacks. The government of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is under pressure, following a suicide bombing, blamed on the PKK, which killed six people in an Ankara shopping mall last week. Officials said the bombing marked an escalation in the separatists' campaign. Mr Erdogan's comment, after the Ankara blast, that he saw "eye to eye" with the army over future military action has raised expectations that an operation is imminent.
Mr Barzani, head of the Kurdistan regional government (KRG), which enjoys considerable autonomy from the Shia Arab-led Baghdad government, has warned that any Turkish intervention could meet with resistance, both in northern Iraq and in south-east Turkey.
Mr Barzani's fighting talk has been condemned by US officials who are urging Ankara to hold fire, too. They worry that the region could be destabilised if the two sides collide. But Turkey's inclination to take matters into its own hands may have been strengthened by this week's formal handover of the three northern Kurdish provinces of Iraq - Arbil, Dahuk, and Sulaymaniyah - to KRG security forces. Only a few US forces will now remain in the northern region.
Speaking on Turkey's Kanal D television channel this week, the US ambassador, Ross Wilson, said Washington was pursuing "a number of avenues" with Ankara to curb PKK attacks. "I am hopeful that they will produce results," he said. In the interview he had to explain why two US F-16 fighter jets had crossed the Iraq border and violated Turkish airspace this month. Turkey issued an official protest after the incident, which Mr Wilson termed accidental. But Turkish media suggested Washington was sending a none-too-subtle message to its Nato ally to keep out of Iraq.
Turkish officials say their government's patience is exhausted with the rising level of PKK attacks and US prevarication. "The military build-up has been going on for the past month," a Turkish diplomat said. "We are trying to get Iraq, the US, and the Kurdish regional government to act more responsibly. But unfortunately so far we have not had enough cooperation. We are trying to act with restraint. But public opinion is really boiling after the suicide bombing last week."
The diplomat said Mr Barzani's "irredentist rhetoric", appearing to assert a political and territorial claim to ethnic Kurdish areas of south-east Turkey, was exacerbating the situation. Media allegations that Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq were aiding the PKK and, like US forces, turning a "blind eye" to its activities, were widely believed, he said. "We know for sure that most of the explosives used by the PKK come from northern Iraqi territory," he added. "The US could help us a lot more. They could have captured leading figures in the PKK but instead they have given them safe haven. This is very harmful to public opinion and Turkey's relationship with the US."
Kurds in north Iraq and south-east Turkey say Ankara is to blame for a conflict that has claimed an estimated 37,000 lives since 1984. They point to systemic civil and human rights abuses and institutionalised discrimination against Turkey's ethnic Kurd minority. Despite reforms designed to ease Turkey's entry into the EU, many grievances remain unaddressed.
Several internal factors are stoking the pressure on Mr Erdogan, who may see limited military action as a way of distracting attention from home: these include the general election in July, an impasse over the next president, controversial constitutional reforms, and debate on preserving Turkey's secular character. The last big cross-border operation was 10 years ago, in Saddam Hussein's regime, when 40,000 Turkish troops entered Iraq. But some Turkish observers said that action was not a success and predict any new incursion would also be of limited utility.