While the last thing Iraq needs right now is a major crisis with one of its neighbors, one may be unavoidable. After a cross-border raid by guerrillas from the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) left 12 Turkish soldiers dead and eight missing on Sunday, dozens of Turkish military vehicles headed toward the Iraq border. Meanwhile, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani announced that he expected the PKK rebels to announce a unilateral ceasefire later Monday. If Turkey does indeed carry out its threats to target Kurdish insurgents hiding in Iraq, the man who will have to deal with the fallout is Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, himself a Kurd, who is urging restraint on all sides. How bad is the situation? Zebari says dealing with the crisis "has been the most difficult job in the world." He met with NEWSWEEK's Babak Dehghanpisheh at the ministry of foreign affairs in Baghdad. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Do you think Turkey will invade Iraq?
Hoshyar Zebari: I personally don't believe [the Turks] will do anything before this ministerial meeting in Istanbul on the 2nd and 3rd of November. This is a big event for them. This is all of Iraq's neighbors, the P5 foreign ministers [the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members], the G8, the U.N., the EU, everybody. I personally don't think anything will happen until then. After that, [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is visiting Washington. I don't think he wants to poison his visit by ordering Turkish troops to invade another country. So I think there's a lot of tension. But hopefully by then the weather conditions and Mother Nature also …
It will start getting colder …
Exactly. But it seems they are determined to do something. How big an operation is not known. They're keeping their cards very close to their chest … [A cell phone starts to ring] Sorry, this is the Syrian foreign minister. [In Arabic] Hello. How are you?
[A few minutes later] So you're at the center of events, you know. [Laughing] [The Syrian foreign minister] is calling because president [Bashar] Assad made a statement supporting Turkish action. So that created a reaction from our president, who criticized how come a leader of a friendly Arab state is endorsing another foreign country to invade another Arab country. This is very unusual. [Assad] has crossed all the red lines of solidarity and brotherhood and so on. So [Iraqi President Jalal Talabani] is complaining that we didn't expect this from the [Syrian] president.
Why would Assad weigh in on that?
Just to appease the Turks, basically. They are isolated in the Arab region, in the neighborhood. [Assad's] visit coincided with this tension. Although he called for dialogue and so on, that part [supporting the Turkish action] was highlighted by the Turkish media, by the Arab media a great deal. So we agreed to meet in Istanbul. I urged [the Syrian foreign minister] to use whatever influence and contacts they have with the Turks to be reasonable. He said, "We will do that."
Do you think the Turks would invade, or would they settle for another military option?
They could do some kind of incursion, but most probably [it will be] air strikes against the PKK bases in the Qandil mountains, in the triangle between Turkey, Iran and Iraq. It's a very rugged area, mountainous, isolated, high altitude—where the PKK have their main bases. The second thing I was discussing with my Syrian counterpart … this is very weird, you see. After the [PKK] attacks during Ramadan, we were trying by all means to contain the tension. To reach out to the Turks to show our willingness and readiness. This new attack just inflames the situation. So there must be some deliberate attempt just to keep this alive. Who is doing it? It's an open question.
So you're not convinced that the PKK is behind the attacks?
I don't really know—it could be the PKK. But the PKK are infiltrated, also.
By many—even by Turkish military and Turkish intelligence. The PKK have contacts and relations also with Iran. They were based in Syria for many years, as you know. The Turkish foreign minister is going to be visiting Baghdad soon, in the next couple of days. So our decision was to wait until he comes to hear from him, basically. Secondly, we are prepared to send a delegation to Ankara to discuss ways and means or what practical measures can be taken against the PKK presence or activity in the north. One sticking point is—and this is one of the paradoxes of the Turkish position—practically nothing can be done in the Kurdish region without the full support and engagement and commitment of the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG]. Here, the Turks have been reluctant. It was our decision a year ago to set up a tripartite commission between Turkey, the United States and Iraq at the military and security level to address this legitimate Turkish security concern. We went out of our way also to reassure the Turks that we are serious and genuine by including the KRG in [a single] Iraqi delegation. The Turks refused that …
Recently it seems that Erdogan has indicated that he could accept such a kind of arrangement. If that happens I think it could be a big step forward … The other point which has been missed out completely: Turkey has intelligence stations throughout the north, from Sulaimaniya to Dahuk to Erbil to Zakho, and so on. And they have over 1,300 troops with tanks, with armored personnel carriers, with guns stationed in the region.
The Turkish troops are still there?
They are still there. Inside Iraq. The main mission of these troops is mainly to observe and monitor PKK activity across the border. This Turkish exposure of their position to send thousands of troops across the border is not primarily aimed at the PKK; they know where the PKK are. This may have some other, ulterior motives. To disrupt the KRG administration. To cripple the infrastructure, and so on. That's why there's a great deal of anxiety and nervousness. The situation is tense.
Do you have a clear line of communication with the PKK?
Believe me, we don't. They may have some contacts locally. But as a government we don't have such contacts.
Is there any discussion about the Americans handling this issue?
Yes, of course. The Americans have a responsibility toward this as the MNF [Multinational Force] in charge of the security, protection of Iraq—definitely they have a role here, a very important role. They have been urging caution all along, for patience, for restraint. For them the situation is also very embarrassing. It's inconceivable that a NATO member can invade another country which is under the protection of the United States. It would be very, very embarrassing. Or to see their allies the Kurds and the Turks at each other's throats. Their position is very, very difficult. Very embarrassing. That's why we are all in some crisis, to be honest with you.