Ankara wants Iraqi Kurds to patrol border

Turks try to withdraw and still secure frontier, writes Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
Some 24,000 Iraqi Kurd soldiers will replace the Turkish invasion force in northern Iraq as it withdraws, under a plan being discussed by Turkey and the Iraqi Kurd leadership.

The aim is for the Iraqi Kurds - equipped and financed by Turkey - to police the border area to prevent its use as a haven by Turkish Kurd guerrillas for raids into Turkey.

As Turkey comes under intense international pressure to withdraw the 35,000-strong force which occupied a swath of northern Iraq three weeks ago, the use of the Iraqi Kurds appears to be the most effective method of allowing the Turkish army to pull back without creating a military and political vacuum. It is the preferred option of the United States, whose Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, was due to arrive in Ankara last night before next week's visit to Washington by the Turkish Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller.

Hoshyar Zebari, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani, said talks were going on with the Turks for his party and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal al-Talabani each to provide 12,000 soldiers to control the border. A Turkish delegation flew to Mr Barzani's headquarters at Salahudin in northern Iraq last week to discuss the plan. Mr Zebari said Turkey was expected to provide equipment, logistics, communications and money for the Iraqi Kurdish force. He said the KDP also wanted to get Turkish aid to repopulate the border region, from which Kurds fled in the 1980s when President Saddam Hussein of Iraq declared it a free-fire zone.

Iraqi opponents of President Saddam allied to the Kurds said they believed Turkey, with US support, will now move decisively behind Mr Barzani to prevent guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) returning as the Turks withdraw. At the weekend Turkey withdrew 3,000 men, according to UN people in the area.

Another reason for the US to secure a Turkish withdrawal is a report from Tehran that Iran, hostile to any increase in Turkish influence in the region, may send its own troops across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan unless the Turkish army pulls back.

Turkey is therefore likely to throw its support behind Mr Barzani, with whom it has had better relations than with Mr Talabani, who had aided the PKK. Having portrayed the invasion of 20 March as a great military victory, it would be embarrassing for Ankara if its withdrawal was immediately followed by a rash of PKK attacks within its borders.

The PKK leader, Abdallah Ocalan, said he would consider a deal by the Iraqi Kurds with Turkey a "declaration of war against us". In an interview with al-Wasat newspaper, he said: "If they join with the enemy, that would be the end for them. We hope they will not make such a grave mistake and fight us."