Ankara incursion threatens only part of Iraq still at peace

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Turkey is threatening to send its troops into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish guerrillas in a move likely to destabilise the one part of Iraq which is at peace.

The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will ask parliament next week to authorise a military incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan after attacks by Turkish Kurds killed more than 10 Turkish troops last Sunday. Threatening a push into Iraq would also underline Turkish anger at the US Congressional vote describing the Ottoman Turk killing of Armenians in 1915 as genocide.

A statement from Mr Erdogan's office said: "The order has been given for every kind of measure to be taken [against the PKK] including, if needed, by a cross-border operation."

An attack into Iraqi Kurdistan by Turkey would be deeply embarrassing for the US because the five million Iraqi Kurds are the only Iraqi community which fully supports the US occupation of Iraq. US reliance on Kurdish military units was emphasised yesterday by a report that Peshmerga 34th Division is to move outside the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area to guard roads between Kurdistan and Baghdad.

The Turkish government was recently re-elected with an increased majority but may wish to burnish its patriotic credentials by authorising the army to enter Iraq. There is continual tension between the ruling AK moderate Islamic party and the secular military establishment. A military assault would be unlikely to achieve anything practical against the PKK guerrillas who have camps and hide-outs in the rugged mountains of Qandil along Iraq's borders with Turkey and Iran.

Given the rebels' knowledge of the terrain and the lack of roads, the PKK could disappear very easily. The Turks would probably use helicopter-born troops to try to surprise them.

The Iraqi Kurds believe they may be the real target of any Turkish intervention since it would destabilise their enclave. Some Turkish Kurdish businesses, which had won many contracts in Kurdistan, are returning to Turkey. Hopes that the Kurdish economy could take off regardless of the anarchy in the rest of Iraq have been blighted by high inflation and lack of confidence in local banks.

The impact on the region of a Turkish attack, if it takes place, will depend on the extent of the intervention. If it is confined to the mountains on the frontier, where there are only a few villages, then the KRG would be unlikely to respond. Turkish incursions by 35,000 to 50,000 troops in 1995 and 1997 failed to achieve anything. But if Turkish forces advance into important towns and cities then Kurdish troops would be bound to respond. The KRG will also want to prevent a precedent being established whereby the Turkish army can cross the Turkish-Iraq frontier at will.

Turkey has been alarmed to see the development of an effectively independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq and an Iraqi government in Baghdad in which the Kurds play a leading role. It is particularly anxious about the referendum which might lead to the oil province of Kirkuk joining the KRG under a poll which was promised under the constitution for the end of 2007 but may now be delayed.

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