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April 11, 2003

(Reuters Photo)
Turkey Accepts U.S. Pledge, Repeats Iraq Warning


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April 11

By Ralph Boulton

ANKARA, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey accepted Friday U.S. promises to block any bid by Iraqi Kurds to control northern oilfields, but signaled it was still ready to send its own troops if it saw a Kurdish move toward independence.

Turkey sounded an alarm Thursday after Kurdish peshmerga fighters moved into the oil city of Kirkuk abandoned by Iraqi government forces. The Kurds had crossed a "red line," one of many Ankara sees in its fraught relations with Iraqi Kurds.

The United States, fearing a disruptive Kurdish-Turkish clash if Ankara invaded, moved quickly to dispatch its own units to take control of the situation.

"Due to our initiatives those who entered Kirkuk have now begun to leave; those who entered Mosul will also move out," Prime Minister Abdullah Gul told a news conference.

But he left a pointed reminder for the Americans, working with the peshmerga, of a historic Turkish suspicion of Kurdish ambitions in the region.

"Yesterday we told (Secretary of State Colin) Powell that if their forces are not enough, we can do it (take control) together and if neither of those work, we could do it on our own," Gul said.

Images of the jubilant peshmerga, splashed over newspapers, touched on a raw nerve in Turkey where schoolchildren learn of perfidious Western powers conniving 80 years ago at the partition of Turkey's heartland and creation of a Kurdish state.

The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, settling borders after World War One, created Kurdish and Armenian states partly in what is now Turkey but it was repudiated by Turkish nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Conservative Turks and others argue an Iraqi Kurdish state would reignite separatism in the Turkish southeast that killed 30,000 in the 1980s and 1990s. Turkish troops and armor wait on Turkey's mountainous border with Iraq.

The Kurdish issue is a potent one in both Turkey's domestic and its foreign policy.

Bulent Akarcali of the liberal Democracy Foundation believes Turkey and other neighbors with Kurdish minorities should accept assurances they do not seek independence, only autonomy in a new, federal Iraq.

"The Kurds have understood they cannot survive by being in conflict with Turkey, Syria and Iran," he said.


But on the streets of Ankara there was a prevailing mood of skepticism about the appearance of Kurds in a city that could provide the wealth a Kurdish state would need.

"I know the Kurds," said Mahmut Sahin, a lottery ticket seller who served as a soldier in the southeast in the 1990s. "What they want is to take Kirkuk and its oil to begin a state."

The United States has put up harsh resistance to Turkish demands it be allowed to deploy tens of thousands of troops in northern Iraq -- an area governed autonomously by Kurds since the 1991 Gulf War. Washington would almost certainly withhold a much-needed $1 billion grant if Ankara sent in its soldiers.

In arguing its case for a military role there, Turkey points to the ethnically related Turkmen population which it says is subject to intimidation from the majority Kurds.

Ahmet Muratli, Iraqi Turkmen Front representative in Ankara, appeared on Turkish television Friday describing scenes of looting, vandalism, car theft and attacks in Kirkuk.

"Only the Turkmen were targeted. "Not one Kurd was harmed." Critics say Turkey has "manufactured" the Turkmen issue, exaggerating their numbers and their spread, to help justify the presence of small detachments of troops who have been in northern Iraq since the 1990s.

Turkmen there have their own schools, television, newspapers and political parties, in contrast to the oppression suffered in Baghdad-ruled Turkmen.

The situation that has developed for the powerful Turkish military in northern Iraq is the worst they could have envisaged. Their failure to back a government move to allow U.S. troops to invade northern Iraq from Turkish soil resulted in collapse of U.S. plans for a "northern front."

If the U.S. troops had invaded from Turkey, the peshmerga would not have played the leading role in U.S. plans that they have in recent days. Meanwhile, the Turkish military sits powerlessly this side of the border for fear of U.S. wrath.

"It's a very bad time for the Turkish military," said one Ankara diplomat. "They dug themselves into a hole."

Turkey and Iraq are among four states in the region with fears of Kurdish separatism, the others being Iran and Syria.

All have formed from time to time alliances with Kurdish groups to counter other Kurdish groups or in some cases create problems for neighbors. The politics of the area make fertile ground for conspiracy theories rife here.

Critics say Ankara must, after 80 years of brooding, be ready soon take a leap of trust with Kurds in northern Iraq as well as Kurds at home, to court Kurds and seek actively to influence rather than keep at bay.

"It would perhaps be better if Ankara gave up building its policies on red lines and on fear and instead began accommodating itself to the unavoidable facts of the future," wrote columnist Ismet Berkan in the Radikal newspaper

(additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley

photo credit and caption:
Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters leave the Northern Iraqi key oil hub of Kirkuk April 11, 2003. Turkey accepted U.S. promises to block any bid by Iraqi Kurds to control northern oilfields, but signaled it was still ready to send its own troops if it saw a Kurdish move toward independence. Photo by Nikola Solic/Reuters

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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