Ankara moves to throttle media's access to Kurds: The ban on foreigners visiting Iraqi Kurdistan reflects growing Turkish nationalism, writes Hugh Pope in Ankara

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The Independent Online
TURKEY has clamped restrictions on foreigners travelling to Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, fleshing out a new hardline policy. The tone adopted by the Foreign Minister, Mumtaz Soysal, has raised diplomatic eyebrows about the extent of Ankara's recent rapprochement with Baghdad.

Mr Soysal took office six weeks ago and is outspoken in his sympathy for Iraq and his opposition to the United Nations embargo. He quickly attacked anti-Turkish foreigners in northern Iraq and now tourists, aid workers and reporters need advance permission from Ankara to cross the border.

American diplomats in Ankara say they are interested enough in 'an accumulation of issues' to put Iraq on top of the agenda of the Assistant Secretary of State, Peter Tarnoff, expected in Ankara next week. Mr Soysal has criticised the United States-led Operation Provide Comfort, which provides air cover for the 3.5 million Kurds in northern Iraq. The operation's six- month mandate comes up for renewal in December.

Iraq's Kurdish leaders fear that they may be victims of one of the diplomatic sell-outs that have plagued their bloody, 50-year-long struggle for autonomy.

But a senior Turkish official said: 'Operation Provide Comfort is the backbone of our Iraq policy. There is no way we will help the Iraqis back into northern Iraq unless the Kurdish leaders agree. What we are after is control. The target is the PKK (Turkish Kurd rebels).'

Western diplomats believe the new Turkish policy contains more bark than bite. Many say that Mr Soysal, 65, is simply playing to the increasingly nationalist element in public opinion, out of an ambition to win the party leadership.

Freedom of travel to Iraq was always a surprising phenomenon, given Turkey's sensitivity to the emergence of a Kurdish autonomous entity. Since the Iraqi Kurdish refugee crisis in 1991 most visitors have been allowed to cross the border. Western diplomats say the need for advance approval is not likely to affect the flow of aid into northern Iraq, where the humanitarian situation is improving and tension is easing, following last month's cease-fire between the two main Kurdish factions.

But the diplomats believe few reporters are likely to get permission to cross the border. In August Turkey banned the entry of Lord Avebury, who has attacked Turkey's Kurdish policy as chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group. The first reporters to be barred were a crew from ZDF television of Germany, where public opinion is strongly pro-Kurdish. Turkish officials say that some foreign media are promoting an independent Kurdish state, an outcome that would fuel the flames of Turkey's own 10- year-old Kurdish rebellion.

But nobody in Ankara thinks Turkey's new Foreign Minister is about to break UN sanctions on Iraq. The US helped Ankara to repair the 1.5 million-barrel-per- day oil pipeline between Iraq and Turkey, closed since Iraq invaded Kuwait. However, a senior Western diplomat said one problem was that Mr Soysal might encourage Saddam Hussein's intransigence. But senior Turkish officials say Ankara blocked the latest talks, by insisting that the Iraqi government could not return to the north to distribute aid until it had an agreement with the Iraqi Kurds.

The impression that Turkey is eager to get close to Iraq was reinforced when a 60-member Turkish delegation visited Baghdad, led by the chief of the chamber of commerce. Turkish officials argue such visits are not a breach of sanctions. Iraq was formerly one of Turkey's top three trading partners. Its economy has lost billions of dollars due to sanctions.

Turkey has eased 18-month restrictions on traffic at the Turkey- Iraq border. Trucks can now take in fruit, vegetables and medicines. This traffic mostly benefits the Kurds of northern Iraq, something that the Turks know perfectly well. Another irony in Ankara's policy is that Turkey has taken over from Operation Provide Comfort the job of providing free helicopter lifts for Iraqi Kurdish officials when they travel to their capital, Arbil.