Kurdistan: Dangerous Passage

Could another front be opening in the Iraq war? Over recent weeks, some 200,000 Turkish troops, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, have massed along the mountainous border with Iraq. Trucks passing from Turkey, ferrying the imported goods and foodstuffs that are the lifeblood of the Kurdish economy, have slowed from 1,000 a day to just a couple of hundred. The Turkish military says its troops are there only to prevent armed insurgents of the Kurdish PKK rebel group from crossing into Turkey from their bases on Iraq's Kandil Mountain. But last week, according to angry Foreign Ministry officials in Baghdad, Turkish commandos briefly crossed 15 kilometers into Iraqi territory in pursuit of PKK rebels--a move that could signal dangerous new frictions to come.

Compared with the rest of the country, Iraqi Kurdistan has been a haven of stability--still subject to insurgent bombings, but generally free of the kind of sectarian violence that has racked Baghdad and other major cities in recent weeks. But tensions are rising. Shia militiamen from Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army have begun moving into oil-rich Kirkuk, claimed as part of Kurdistan. In neighboring Iran last month some 10,000 troops attacked PKK-affiliated rebels who defy Tehran's rule in the region. And the Turks have grown increasingly frustrated with the 5,000 guerrillas holed up at Kandil. Over the last two months, the PKK and its political affiliates have stepped up violence inside Turkey to levels not seen in a decade. At least eight government troops were killed in a series of ambushes in Turkey's southeast; two bombs linked to the PKK were planted in Istanbul and, last month, 14 civilians were killed as Kurdish cities all over the southeast erupted in violence.

Ankara is losing patience with the United States, which has promised to deal with the PKK problem. Last week Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of the politically powerful General Staff, claimed that Turkey had the right to defend itself under the United Nations Charter, hinting strongly that the military was seriously considering hot-pursuit cross-border raids. (Before Saddam was toppled in 2003, Turkish troops used to cross the border regularly chasing the PKK, often with the connivance of local Iraqi Kurdish groups which had their own differences with the PKK.) And Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Ankara last week to try to defuse the crisis, that "we expect the U.S. to do more and to be more active." In reply, Rice warned that any cross-border operations would have "a destabilizing effect" on Iraq's fragile security.

Washington is caught between two allies--NATO member Turkey, its closest friend in the Muslim world, and the Iraqi Kurds, its closest ally within Iraq. By rights, of course, dealing with the PKK "should be the responsibility of the Iraqi government," as a senior Iraqi official puts it, not wishing to speak publicly on security matters. "We will not allow any PKK attacks on [Turkey] from our soil. But the limits on the central government are obvious. According to one U.S. official, also not wishing to be quoted on such a sensitive topic, Washington has been trying to pressure Iraq's Kurds to crack down on the PKK themselves, before Ankara steps up its campaign. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has several points of leverage. One is that the Kurds are desperate to have a more or less permanent American military base on their territory as insurance against a future anti-Kurdish regime in Baghdad. Another is that the Kurds will need U.S. help to contain any Shia designs on oil-rich Kirkuk. Also, they need Washington's support in any deal on the parceling out of the country's future oil revenues.

So, the big question is why the Iraqi Kurds aren't cracking down on the PKK insurgents, with whom, after all, they once used to clash. One reason is that, under Saddam, the precarious autonomy of Iraq's Kurds was largely dependent on the good will of Ankara. That was ample incentive to keep the PKK in check. But today, Iraqi Kurds are much more confident. For the first time, they have their own nation in all but name--and are thus more willing to support the nationalistic aspirations of their 14 million countrymen living in Turkey. In words widely interpreted in Ankara as a veiled threat to support a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey if the cross-border raids continue, Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government, warned last week that if Turkey tries "to stop our people from profiting or progressing," then Turkey's own "stability and security" would suffer. That kind of talk is likely to reinforce Turkey's determination to stamp out the PKK once and for all--and take their war inside Iraq if necessary.