Turkey’s Prime Minister has threatened an invasion of northern Iraq if, following yesterday’s Turkish election (apparently a resounding triumph for the ruling Justice and Development Party, the Islamic AKP,) talks fail with Iraq and the US on curbing the activities of Turkish Kurd guerrillas.
Turkish artillery has been firing increasingly heavy barrages at villages in the north of Iraqi Kurdistan. After three Turkish soldiers were killed and five wounded by a mine laid by PKK guerrillas last week, some 100 shells exploded around the border town of Zakho, forcing residents to flee.
The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, said the PKK fighters had been using northern Iraq as a base to make attacks.
He said there would be a tripartite meeting with the US and Iraq after the election but if Turkish demands were not satisfied, an invasion was on the agenda. "Whatever is necessary could be done immediately," he said. "We are capable enough to do it." Mr Erdogan’s hard line was geared to the Turkish election in which his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was — seemingly unnecessarily — fearful of losing votes because it was being portrayed as not acting firmly enough against PKK guerrillas. It wanted to stop the far-right Nationalist Party, which is demanding an incursion in Iraq, getting the 10 per cent of the vote that it needs to win seats in parliament.
The PKK has about 4,000 fighters hiding in the mountains of northern Iraq.
It has escalated its attacks in largely Kurdish south-east Turkey, but these are pinpricks as Turkey has an army of 250,000 men in the region. Nevertheless, the question of how to deal with the PKK became a central issue in the election.
The Iraqi government in Baghdad and the powerful and semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government are taking Turkish threats seriously.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders are dismissive of a Turkish invasion achieving anything against elusive PKK forces. Safeen Dezayee, an expert on Turkey and a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party of the KRG President Massoud Barzani, says: "The Turkish policy of military intervention here has failed over 20 to 25 years. They crossed the border in 1992, 1995 and 1997 and got nowhere."
But the PKK is not Turkey’s only concern. Others include the development of the KRG as the nearest entity the Kurds have ever had to an independent state. The Kurds are very powerful within the government in Baghdad and are pressing ahead with a referendum, which the Iraqi constitution says must be held in northern Iraq by the end of 2007, under which the oil province of Kirkuk may vote to join the KRG.
The Turkish threat to invade puts the US in a difficult position. The Kurds are America’s main supporter in Iraq. Turkey is also a long-term American strategic ally. "The US is telling the Turks not to come in," says Dr Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish leader. "But if there is a conflict between Turkey and the Kurds then the US will support Turkey." To try to avoid a war the US is pressing the KRG to act against the PKK.
After the election, the Turkish government may feel that it has no choice but to launch at least a limited incursion. The Iraqi Kurds are nervous about how far Turkish troops will advance and when they will retreat. If the invasion comes it will be difficult to keep Kurdish soldiers, who form the most reliable part of the Iraqi army, stationed in Baghdad.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.