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2 Iraqi Kurds play with Turkish
fire By M K Bhadrakumar
A controversial interview with Iraqi
Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani by Al-Arabiya
television last weekend may convey a superficial
impression that events in northern Iraq could be
spinning beyond the control of the United States.
Barzani has always been outspoken in
asserting the Kurdish people's rights of national
self-determination, but this time he was out of
line, threatening that he would stoke the fires of Kurdish
In Ankara's tense political
climate in the run-up to a controversial
presidential election scheduled for May-June,
Barzani touched raw nerves that might well come to
impact on the outcome of the election itself.
Meanwhile, several questions arise to which there
are no easy answers. The key question is, did
anyone prod Barzani to speak?
has scurried to cool tempers. Indeed, Turks don't
like being threatened, and Barzani has done it in
full view of the Arab Middle East that formed part
of the proud history of the Ottomans. Also, it was
the second time within the week that Turkish pride
took a blow. Earlier, Baghdad announced, no doubt
with Washington's prior consent, that the venue of
a meeting of foreign ministers for a conference on
Iraq on May 3-4 would be Cairo, and not Istanbul
as originally planned.
Barzani gave the
interview on February 28, but for some obscure
reason it was broadcast six weeks later, on April
6. But then, coincidence or not, last week Turkish
media reported that Washington was getting
increasingly annoyed by Turkey's growing proximity
("strategic cooperation") with Iran. Was Barzani
capitalizing on the contradictions in Turkish-US
relations? Finally, there are the mysterious
goings-on between Barzani and Israeli operatives.
In his interview, Barzani made exceptionally
friendly references to Israel.
course, has an old connection with the Kurds of
northern Iraq. According to Seymour Hersh, Israeli
intelligence uses northern Iraq for staging
subversive activities inside Iran. Hersh wrote in
The New Yorker magazine three years ago that
Israel also has its eyes on the fabulous oil and
gas fields in the Kurdish regions of northern
Iraq. Southern Kurdistan alone is estimated to
hold 45 billion barrels of oil and 100 trillion
cubic meters of gas.
The Israeli presence
in the Kurdish areas has inevitably cast its
shadows on Turkey's relations with Israel.
Recently, Israel has also been unhappy over the
Erdogan government's dealings with the Hamas-led
Palestinian government and with Tehran. Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently invited
Palestinian Prime Minister and Hamas leader Ismail
Haniyeh to visit Ankara.
could be more than one reason that Barzani
challenged Turkey. In the interview, his attention
was drawn to the Turkish opposition to the
inclusion of Kirkuk in the Kurdish autonomous
region. The Iraqi constitution provides for
holding a referendum in Kirkuk by the end of this
year on bringing that province into the Kurdistan
confederacy, which at present comprises Irbil,
Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah.
Barzani shot back:
"We will not allow Turks to interfere in the issue
of Kirkuk ... Kirkuk is an Iraqi city of Kurdish
identity ... Turkey has no right to interfere in
the issue of Kirkuk. If it does, we will interfere
in the issue of Diyarbakr and other cities," he
said in reference to cities in predominantly
Kurdish-populated southeastern Turkey.
When asked whether he was threatening
Ankara, Barzani said, "If we are denied our right
to settle down and live freely, I swear by God
that we will not allow others to live in security
or stability. We are ready to defend our freedom
and our cause to our end."
asked about his views on Kurdish militancy in
Turkey, Barzani said, "Frankly speaking, we
support their rights. We do not interfere in their
affairs. They choose their way to demand their
rights or to struggle for their rights ... They do
not ask us and we are not ready to interfere in
their affairs, but we support them morally and
politically ... It is impossible to support them
with weapons, but we are ready to help them with
all other means."
reaction in Ankara has been sharp. A columnist
warned that one day Barzani would come to Ankara
"to lick its boots and to say that he is sorry".
Erdogan, who favors a political settlement of
problems in Turkey's Kurdish regions through
sustained economic development and an inclusive
state policy, was put on the defensive. His
government is already being pilloried for being
"soft" on national-security issues. With a
presidential election on the horizon and
parliamentary elections to follow within a few
months, Erdogan warned Barzani that he'd be
"crushed under his words".
Foreign Ministry issued a note to the Iraqi
government reminding the latter about the need to
curb trans-border terrorism. Ankara let it be
known that it might raise the northern-Iraq
situation at next month's international conference
on Iraq in Cairo.
Most important, Ankara
made a demarche with Washington about Barzani's
"extremely disturbing, unacceptable and
provocative" statement. Foreign Minister Abdullah
Gul spoke to US Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice. Foreign Ministry officials quoted Gul as
telling Rice, "Barzani should be urged in the
strongest way not to repeat his threats against
Turkish diplomacy is doing its
utmost to harmonize differences with the United
States. Clearly, Turkey would like to get
Washington to postpone the Kirkuk referendum so
that a crisis can be averted. Turkey draws
attention to its special bonds with the US. Last
week Turkey accepted the responsibility of taking
over the command of the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization forces in the Kabul region for a
period of eight months until December, and
increased the size of its military contingent in
Afghanistan from 750 troops to 1,150.
Ankara has never really acclimatized itself to the
existence of the US-backed Kurdish Regional
Government (KRG) based in northern Iraq. It fears
that the KRG, headed by Barzani, will
incrementally serve as a pole of attraction for
Turkey's Kurds; that the KRG will get emboldened
to lend direct support to Kurdish terrorists
operating inside Turkey; that as time passes, the
KRG will garner international sympathy for the
idea of wider Kurdish national self-determination.
Indeed, Turkey has gone against the US and
asked Iraqi leaders directly if it can launch
cross-border raids into Iraqi territory to strike
Kurdish rebel groups in the area. Turkish army
chief General Yasar Buyukanit said on Thursday,
"An operation into Iraq is necessary," adding that
the army's main rival, the Kurdistan Workers
Party, "has spread its roots" and obtained "huge
freedom of movement in Iraq".
visualizes the possibility that the KRG could lead
to the emergence of a fully independent and
sovereign Kurdish state by design or by default,
and that this could threaten Turkish territorial
integrity. Also, the stark reality is that US
President George W Bush has no strategy for
victory in Iraq. Turkey is uneasy that the US
Congress might end up mandating a rapid pullout
from Iraq. What happens then?
opinion may prove to be averse to a violent
suppression of Kurdish aspirations for
self-determination. It may be