Neighbors / Turkish Bombs? Trouble for America

The beautiful hilly road leading from the city of Dohuk in western Kurdistan to the city of Sulaimaniya in the eastern district could have been an impressive tourist attraction. In fact, ever since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, Kurdish and Turkish entrepreneurs have been dreaming of establishing a ski complex and paths for jeep trips here. When I visited the region in August, a member of the Kurdish government suggested giving the Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers a new job: escorting tour buses and jeeps on trips in the field. "In any case, it's very quiet here and there is no need for all these soldiers. Let them at least bring money into our country through tourism." The visitor to the region also gets the impression that there will be no shortage of luxury jeeps in which to transport the tourists: Almost every middle-ranking official drives a 4X4.

The Kurdish district is an independent state in everything but name. It is also the calmest area in all of Iraq, thanks to the dense filter installed by the Kurds to prevent the incursion of terrorist groups: a deep trench around the capital of Arbil; a multi-layered system of roadblocks; invasive intelligence, and close civil cooperation with the Kurdish security forces. If there is any success story in the war in Iraq, it is undoubtedly Kurdistan.

This quiet was violated this week by the suspicious neighbor Turkey. On Saturday and Sunday, Turkish cannons shelled "empty areas" in the high Kandil Mountains northeast of Dohuk.

Although the shellings did not cause any casualties or any real damage, they aroused a fear of war in the region, particularly considering the fact that last week, Turkey deployed about 60,000 of its soldiers along the border, and its leaders declared they intended to invade Kurdistan to pursue terrorists who are members of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). The Turkish authorities claim that the attackers infiltrate Turkey via the mountains and carry out terror activities there, like the one in early October in which 15 Turkish soldiers and another 12 citizens were killed. Turkey also accuses the PKK of firing mortars from Kurdistan at areas inside Turkey.

This week, the Turkish parliament is expected to grant approval to the government to carry out the incursion, thereby providing the legal basis for this comprehensive military action. But although the PKK is included on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations, and ostensibly an action against it should receive Washington's blessing, the last thing the Bush administration wants at the moment is a Turkish-Kurdish war on Iraqi soil. The commander of the American forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, was not exaggerating when he warned this week that such a move on the part of Turkey was liable to damage his forces' supply lines.

Kurdistan is off-limits

About 70 percent of the air cargo that reaches the U.S. Army in Iraq originates in Turkey, as does about 30 percent of the fuel used by the army. If the border crossing is closed or a war begins in the area, the Kurds are liable to decide to remove their thousands of Peshmerga soldiers who serve in the Baghdad region to fight against the Turks, significantly undermining the ability of the American forces in Baghdad and its surroundings to confront the challenges awaiting them.

But it is not only the U.S. that fears the possibility that this quiet region, a model of success, will become a combat zone. Turkey also has reason for concern. About 80 percent of the infrastructure work in Kurdistan is carried out by Turkish companies. Overland commerce between Turkey and Kurdistan is estimated at about $5 billion (out of a total of about $10 billion, which represents the value of the merchandise that crosses into Iraq via the border crossing in Habur).

Convoys of thousands of heavy trucks that wait at the border crossing every day attest to the huge volume of trade. Turkey is also the supplier of electricity to the western part of Kurdistan, and needs Kurdish cooperation to ensure that its economic presence, which is the basis for its strategic presence, continues to exist without interference.

Ostensibly, it would be natural to expect Turkey to conduct direct negotiations with the Kurdish leadership to try to reach a solution to the problem of the PKK. But the meaning of conducting such direct negotiations is recognition of the independence of the district. That is why Turkey, as opposed to Iran, is refraining even from establishing a consulate there, and its citizens have to risk their lives when they are forced to travel to Baghdad to get a visa to visit Turkey.

Turkey wants the Iraqi government, which this month signed an agreement for cooperation against terror, to take action against the members of the PKK. But it is clear both to the Iraqi government and to Turkey that such a demand is similar to the Israeli demand that the Palestinian Authority fight Hamas, with one significant difference: Palestinian security people can, theoretically, enter Hamas-dominated areas, but in Kurdistan not a single Iraqi soldier would dare to cross the imaginary borderline between the Kurdish region and other parts of Iraq. Kurdistan is off-limits to any Iraqi arms bearer who is not Kurdish. In fact, the Iraqi flag cannot even be found in Kurdistan. Therefore the Turkish demand of the U.S. to pressure the Iraqi government to fight against the PKK raises a bitter smile in Washington. After all, the Iraqi government is not even capable of fighting against terrorists who are nearby, not to mention in distant hilly regions.

24 operational incursions

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's interview with CNN this week attests perhaps more than anything to the paradox in which Turkey finds itself. "We need the permission [of the Turkish parliament - Z.B.] so we can take steps when there is a need to do so," Erdogan said. However, in light of the attacks of the PKK, the most suitable time to take those steps is now. Then why is Erdogan waiting? The practical explanation is that Turkey has carried out 24 operational incursions into Kurdish territory, which did not bring the desired results. Erdogan is apparently also waiting for the upcoming meeting next month with U.S. President George W. Bush to examine what Turkey can receive for not attacking in Iraq. And no less important, Turkey is waiting to see how the U.S. Congress will vote on the question of defining the killing of the Armenians as genocide in the last years of the Ottoman empire.

Erdogan must demonstrate military determination against the most recent terror activities in Turkey, because the prestige of his government also depends on it. His Justice and Development Party presented itself in the July elections as a nationalist party, and now it must prove to the public that it fights terror no less than any other nationalist body. The problem is "only" to find a balance between the need to take American interests into consideration, and the need to align with the political pressures at home.

The government of the Kurdish region in Iraq is also well-aware of this paradox. It has sworn itself to silence and instructed all its representatives not to speak publicly on the subject. Although the Kurdish press is raising fists, and op-eds published in the press explain that "the Kurds are not afraid of anyone, not even Turkey," President Massoud Barzani is uncharacteristically quiet. This is the same president who only a few months ago warned Turkey that if it intervened in events in the Kurdish region in Iraq, the Kurds in Iraq would "intervene" in what happens among the Kurds in Turkey. The statement that gave rise to a profound political conflict between the parties, to the point of a threat of Turkish sanctions against Kurdistan.

For now, Erdogan is in no rush to embark on a campaign inside Iraq. He fully understands the American lesson in Iraq. Also, the fact that the Americans, the Iraqis and the Europeans are currying favor with Turkey isn't a harmful thing for the nation. The border between Iraq and Turkey will continue to serve the merchants rather than the army.