Turkish Army rattles sabers at militant Kurds in Iraq

Posted in Europe , Broader Middle East | 08-Jun-07 | Author: Sabrina Tavernise| Source: International Herald Tribune

Turkish armoured vehicle roll along a street in the southeast Turkish town of Cizre, some 60 km (37 miles) from Turkey's Habur border gate to Iraq in May 2007.

CIZRE, Turkey: Turkey is stepping up its presence along its border with Iraq to levels not seen in years in an effort to root out Kurdish separatist guerrillas who take refuge in northern Iraq.

That means that as the American military struggles to control the violence in central Iraq, a second conflict could spill across its northern border.

And while reports this week of a large Turkish military push into Iraq seem to be untrue, the army is acting with greater urgency here in the southeast, home to a large part of the Kurdish minority, which accounts for one-fifth of Turkey's population.

On Wednesday the military announced that it was establishing "security zones" in three districts, including Sirnak, east of here, a step reminiscent of emergency rule imposed on this area until 2002 in an effort to destroy a militant group of Kurdish separatists.

That group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, has carried out violent attacks in Turkey since the 1980s, fighting for a separate Kurdish state. It has recently stepped up attacks against Turkish soldiers. Militants killed seven on Monday by hiding in a food delivery vehicle. Three forest rangers were killed Thursday in a land-mine attack.

"Every day they are attacking our soldiers," said an official in Sirnak, a town north of the Iraqi border with several military bases nearby. "Somebody has to do something. Mr. Bush, you have to give permission: Let Turkish soldiers into northern Iraq."

Both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have warned Turkey against military action, and Turkey is unlikely to buck its American ally. That would embarrass the United States and be seen as a broad indictment of its Iraq policy.

Since the early 1990s, Turkey has entered northern Iraq three times, with tens of thousands of troops, and it is clearly debating a repeat.

The threat puts the United States in a tight position between allies. Kurds are the Americans' most trusted partners in Iraq. Turkey, a NATO ally, allows the United States use of an air base that supplies a large portion of central Iraq.

"Now the U.S. has to choose," the official in Sirnak said, "Turkish people or Kurdish people."

The Turkish military says that its presence along the border is simply part of regular spring exercises and that any move into Iraq would require Parliament's approval.

The Turkish military is pressing the United States and the Kurdish leader in northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani, to take action against the militants. A Western diplomat said the primary difference from past years was how public the military was about its concerns.

"The general staff is playing a really dangerous game on the border," said Mahmut Vefa, a lawyer in Diyarbakir, the provincial capital, and a former member of a Kurdish political party. "This is a message for northern Iraq, U.S.A. and the Kurdish people in Turkey."

The prospect of military action grew after a suicide bombing killed eight people in Ankara in May. The government blamed Kurdish militants. They denied it.

Shortly after the bombing, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked sharply that Turkey "does not need to take permission from anywhere" when deciding whether to enter Iraq. "Turkey at this point is capable of determining its own future."

Erdogan's government long promoted a political solution to the Kurdish conflict, but for some time now has been trying to appeal to nationalist Turks.

"Now, anything can happen," said Mehmet Ali Kislali, a columnist with the newspaper Radikal who has close sources in the military, "maybe not a massive military operation into Iraq, but anything else is possible."

Over the years, Turkey has staged brief, small-scale incursions into Iraq to chase Kurdish militants, and keeps a small contingent of Special Forces troops at an outpost there, but the army has not entered since the American invasion in 2003.

So a recent increase in training exercises and patrols here near Cizre, close to the borders of Syria and Iraq, came as something of a surprise. Tanks clanked across mown grass, occasionally firing. An American-made helicopter flew above. Farther west, near the Tigris River, a line of hot, exhausted Turkish soldiers trudged up a ribbon of road through yellow wheat fields, apparently returning from a patrol in the Turkish mountains.

"It is the most I've seen in the last 10 years," said a lentil farmer leaning on his scythe in a field near a highway, where trucks carrying Turkish tanks were passing nearby.

On the Iraqi side of the border, Kurdish militia members near Karavela village said they had been watching tanks and soldiers on the Turkish side for about a month.

"In the name of God, they never came like this before," said Khalid Sindi, a captain in the Kurdish militia force, the pesh merga. "If they say it's normal training, why are they doing it so close to the border? Turkey is threatening us. It's obvious to everyone."

However amplified the oratory, the militants pose a serious threat. In April and May alone, 30 Turkish soldiers were killed in attacks, and in the first nine months of last year, about 600 people were killed in militant-related violence, according to official Turkish figures. Turkey is trying to become a member of the European Union, and navigating a violent fight with armed separatists has proved difficult.

"Imagine Mexico is a part of the U.S. and it wants to separate," the Sirnak official said. "They are assaulting Miami, killing American people. It's not easy to solve this problem."

Kurds argue that Turkey simply does not like the thought of a nearly independent Kurdish state in Iraq, a product of the American invasion. Though Kurds in Turkey have more rights than they did during the worst of the fighting in the mid-1990s, the state has yet to grant full equality, and the idea of a Kurdish state along its southern border is deeply unsettling.

General Yasar Buyukanit, Turkey's military chief and one of its most powerful officials, remarked tartly in April that the flags that greet one upon entering northern Iraq were Kurdish, not Iraqi, as was the anthem in the welcome ceremony.

On the Iraqi side of the windswept Habur border crossing, Rafi Gorogisian, a passport officer, said a giant Turkish flag had been raised over the Turkish side not long ago, as if to compete with the Kurdish flag to the south. It was even lighted at night, he said angrily. Now Iraqi Kurds are having a bigger one made.

"They hate the Kurdistan flag," Gorogisian said, squinting in the sun at the giant patch of Turkish red. "Let them hate it. I will hate more than them."

But the deteriorating situation in Iraq, and the political pressure to withdraw American troops altogether, is a frightening prospect for Turkey.

"They don't know what comes next," a Western diplomat said. "They have to live here. Talk about pulling troops out? Turkey can't pull out. They are stuck. And they are very concerned about that."

For many here, war has been a lifelong torment that no longer makes any sense. In a funeral tent in Sirnak on Thursday, Yusuf Yalcin mourned his 21-year-old son, who was killed by Kurdish militants in the food delivery ambush. He was a Kurd.

"The killers are Kurdish, and the killed are Kurdish," said a retired farmer who sat in a central square in Sirnak, drinking tea with friends.

A particularly cynical moment came in 2005, when Turkish soldiers were caught red-handed in a bomb attack on a Kurdish bookstore in Semdinli in which one person was killed. Several soldiers were sentenced to jail terms, but all of the convictions were overturned this year by an appeals court, a decision that was particularly depressing for people here.

Residents who have little to do with politics are afraid of the newly announced security measures.

"It's going to be hard," said a shepherd gathering hay in a field near where the Turkish soldiers were returning. "People will investigate and stop us. If we go to the bathroom, they'll write down our names."