Disquiet on the Northern Front

ISTANBUL - Turkey holds the option of unilateral intervention in northern Iraq if Kurds declare independence and claim the oil wealth of disputed Kirkuk, considered the main spoils in the uncertain Iraqi equation.

In bellicose tones, Turkish officials have served notice that Kirkuk, with 40 percent of Iraqi petroleum and 6 percent of the world's known oil reserves, is a multi-ethnic city and the home of Turkomens (northern Iraqis of Turkish stock), and as such should have a "special status."

Turkey's sharp reaction challenges claims by Kurdish leaders that Kirkuk is a Kurdish city destined to be the capital of an autonomous Kurdish entity in a federated Iraq – or a fully independent one.

"Kirkuk is the Jerusalem of Kurdistan," Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani has publicly announced. Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) calls Kirkuk the heart of Kurdistan. "We are ready to fight and sacrifice our soul to preserve its identity," he said.

Turkey officially alleges "manipulations and irregularities" in the Jan. 30 elections where a unified Kurdish ticket claimed 59 percent of the vote in Kirkuk, with Turkomens gaining only 18 percent. It cites reports that Kurds from other areas were brought to Kirkuk to boost their votes against Turkomens and Arabs. Kurds say that their people driven out of Kirkuk in Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" drive are coming back.

"Some people are looking the other way while mass migration takes place," Turkish Prime Miister Recep Tayyib Erdogan said recently, referring to the United States. "This is going to create major difficulties in the future. Everyone must know that Turkey....won't allow this geography to be delivered to chaos that will last for many years."

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has said that "in case of fighting in Kirkuk, Turkey cannot remain a spectator." Kurdish leaders have warned Turkey that any intervention would lead to disaster.

Modern Turkey's predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, ruled both Kirkuk and Mosul, another oil-rich city in the north, until they were ceded to Britain in the 1920s. Although it had legal right to a share of the oil wealth, Turkey gave it up for a lump sum in a decision Turks still regret.

How credible is the Turkish threat of military intervention in northern Iraq? Can it risk confrontation with the United States, still smarting over Turkey's refusal to open a "northern front" against Saddam? On the other hand, the United States enjoys cordial relations with Kurds who backed it against Saddam.

Early sabre-rattling is soothing a Turkish populace concerned that their country is a mere spectator to vital developments in bordering Iraq. But a military strike is "highly unlikely," says Swedish expert Henrik Liljegren.

There are significant "restraining factors," said Liljegren, former diplomat and now senior associate at the Istanbul Policy Center. He cited them as damage to Turkey's bid to join the European Union, international law, public opinion (particularly in Muslim countries) and above all the United States.

Turkey appears to be having as much trouble with the United States as with Kurds in northern Iraq. Its traditional "strategic partnership," while still active on paper, suffered a serious blow when the Turkish parliament voted against Turkey joining the war on Saddam, or allowing U.S. troops to cross its territory.

Recent opinion polls indicate that 60 percent of Turks are anti-American. Turks are particularly irked by the U.S. refusal to move against about 5,000 Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas holed up in mountains in northern Iraq bordering Turkey, despite declaring the PKK a terrorist organisation.

When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she sees no difference between Kurdish PKK guerrillas and al-Qaeda, Turkish columnist Semih Idiz wrote: "If that is the case, why aren't you going after the PKK like you are going after al-Qaeda?"

The United States has said the PKK will be dealt with later, and that the current priority is developments in Iraq.

But Liljegren believes that should PKK guerrillas slip back into Turkey, re-kindling fears of civil strife that took 30,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey can strike at them in Iraq in "self-defense" or "hot pursuit." Turkey has maintained a few thousand troops inside northern Iraq for years.

The Turkish foreign ministry says its approach to Iraq has "a strategic perspective" and is not confined to PKK guerrillas, Turkomens or Kirkuk. But some analysts say the Turkish establishment, both military and political, suffers from a "Kurdish phobia" that drives it to seek military solutions. Turkish analyst Dogu Ergil says Turkey should encourage Turkomen-Kurdish reconciliation rather than "driving a wedge between them."

Iraqi Kurds say publicly they do not harbor anti-Turkish designs, while never hiding the fact that full independence remains their ultimate ideal. In an unofficial ballot accompanying the Jan. 30 elections, some 95 percent of Iraqi Kurdish voters are reported to have favored independence. "When the right time comes, it will be a reality," Barzani has said.

Whatever form its takes, a strong Kurdish entity in land-locked northern Iraq would need friendly relations with Turkey, observers say.

"Despite mutual distrust, ours and the future of Kurds are interlinked," says Mehmet Ali Birand, a leading Turkish commentator on Kurdish affairs. "Kurds should know that without Turkey they will never ensure their security. On the other hand, Turkey should realize that without the Kurds, Turkey cannot influence what's happening in Iraq. It might be a historic joke, but Turks and Kurds need each other."

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