U.S., Turkey Bond Over Iraq Raids

Since well before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Turkey complained quietly—and sometimes not so quietly—about rebel Kurds based in northern Iraq staging terror attacks deep inside Turkey. But it was only when Turkey turned up the volume with a threat to invade northern Iraq and cut off supplies to U.S. bases in Iraq that Washington listened.

This week's raids into northern Iraq by up to 300 Turkish commandos are evidence of that. Information that emerged this week suggests that President Bush may have made a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his Nov. 5 visit to Washington by which the Turks would get a green light to attack the bases of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. According to a top adviser present at the Washington talks, Erdogan told Bush that the U.S. president had to choose between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdish groups. Bush's reaction was that Washington would support Ankara but that the Turkish operation should be "limited" and that a political settlement should also be sought, according to the adviser. In fact, the U.S. had little choice: Washington has long said that the PKK is a terror group and its existence in northern Iraq cannot be tolerated. More important, Washington needs Turkey as an ally in its war on terror.

The raids themselves went well beyond the small-scale military operations Turkey has been mounting for months. Crucially, it was the first time since before the 2003 invasion that the U.S. and Turkish militaries have estabished an effective tactical cooperation. After years of disappointment and tension, the Turks finally got some strategic help from Washington and real tactical assistance from the U.S. military. For one thing, America provided intelligence that enabled air strikes to hit alleged PKK targets, Turkey's ambassador in Washington, Nabi Sensoy, said Wednesday. (The White House acknowledges that it shares intelligence with Ankara but refused to comment on reports that it had helped Turkish authorities target the PKK.) The United States also opened up northern Iraq's air space—still under American control—to Turkish warplanes. The Turks, who went from being America's strongest supporters to among its fiercest critics in the region, felt that they and the U.S. were on the same side again. Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, chief of Turkey's general staff, praised the cooperation, and the press hailed the restoration of the damaged ties with Washington. The popular daily Milliyet ran a front page editorial reminding readers how far U.S.-Turkish relations had come since their low point: an incident in April 2003 when troops of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Division captured 22 undercover Turkish Special Forces agents in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and detained them in plastic hoods and handcuffs—a humiliation often revisited in the Turkish media.

According to assessments by the Turkish military cited in the Turkish press, the PKK's camps in the Kandil mountains in northern Iraq have been completely destroyed. There are no hard estimates of casualties on the PKK side as yet, though the Turkish media has treated the raids as a resounding victory and a revenge for PKK attacks inside Turkey, which left more than 80 Turkish soldiers dead this year alone. But the tactical success Turkey may have scored against the PKK pales in comparison with the major result of a restoration of the crippled U.S.-Turkish relationship. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to Iraq this week, was outspoken in her support for the Turkish operation and notably cool toward Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and the Iraqi Kurdish administration. Though the Kurds remain America's closest allies inside Iraq itself, they've worn Washington's patience thin. According to one Western diplomat not authorized to speak on the record, Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, had been "told a thousand times" that the Iraqi Kurds must do something about the PKK or risk the Turks doing it for them. "In the end they did not do a lot, despite fair warning," says the diplomat.

The question is, how long will the entente last. The risk is that the United States will tilt back toward Barzani (who refused to meet with Rice this week) if Turkey's operations are stepped up. The United States insists, Rice said this week, that Turkey should "refrain from taking action that would destabilize" Iraq. Decoded, that means that Washington does not want constant Turkish incursions that go deeper into the heartland of northern Iraq. Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and President Erdogan have said repeatedly that their military's only target is the PKK, not civilians or Iraqi Kurdish security forces. In Turkey there have been calls this week from the ultranationalist MHP party and some retired generals, as well as some members of the CHP opposition, to hit not only the PKK but all forces who "harbor or support them," such as the Barzani administration. Senior government advisers tell NEWSWEEK, however, that Turkey will "limit its strikes and operations" and will refrain fom sending any signals to the Iraqi Kurds that might suggest that Ankara's aims go beyond neutralizing the PKK. Ankara is actutely aware that serious numbers of civilian casualties would quickly erode a carefully constructed diplomatic edifice of international backing for Turkey's raids—not just U.S. support but "understanding" from the European Union and sympathy from most of the Islamic world—except from Iraq itself, which condemned the raids.

The problem of unrest among Turkey's 14 million-strong Kurdish minority isn't going to be solved, however, by hitting the PKK alone. Prominent terrorism expert Ercan Citlioglu of Bahcesehir University says the threat of terrorism "cannot be removed by just killing some terrorists or bombing their shelters." He argues for a comprehensive plan, not only military but also political, economic, social and cultural. This also seems to be the basis of the government's new Kurdish strategy. Erdogan has suggested that he may offer a limited amnesty to encourage PKK members to "return home." In Turkey's largely Kurdish southeast special teams of local civilian administrators and security officers have been assigned to visit the families of PKK members to tell them to convince their chlidren to abandon the struggle. The goverment is also talking up new programs for the economic and social recovery of the southeast, in addition to the "return home" campaign, which aims to help ex-PKK members find jobs—though Ankara has ruled out any kind of dialogue with the PKK leadership.

Erdogan has emerged from the crisis more popular than ever—not least because he has kept his promise to use force to put an end to PKK attacks. His relations with the military, which have been strained for years because of Erdogan's Islamist past, are now better than they have ever been. Erdogan's challenge now is to bring about a political solution as neat and victorious as his military one.

U.S., Turkey Bond Over Iraq Raids | World