Turkey reluctantly prepares for attack on Kurds

It is a war few in the region want to happen, apart from the PKK guerrillas and militant factions in the Turkish army
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The Independent Online

The rebels of the Turkish-Kurd PKK movement are the only guerrillas in the world who can be seen from space. Clearly visible to any satellite passing over their headquarters in the Kandil mountains is a giant portrait picked out in painted stones of the PKK's captive leader, Abdullah Ocalan, regarded with cult-like devotion by his followers.

Ignored by the outside world for years, during which they hid in the valleys of Iraqi Kurdistan, the guerrillas looked bemused last week by the number of journalists who had made the trek into the mountains to speak to them. It was a PKK attack early last Sunday morning in which 16 Turkish soldiers were killed and eight captured that led to the Turkish government threatening to invade northern Iraq in pursuit of the Turkish Kurd rebels.

It is not a war anybody wants, apart from the PKK and militant factions within the Turkish army. The PKK was defeated in its battle for independence or at least autonomy for Turkey's 15 million Kurds after a bloody war fought between 1984 and 1999. A Turkish invasion might enable it to regain its political popularity among Turkish Kurds.

The Turkish army, or at least some of its leaders, also has a vested interest in escalating the long-running struggle. This is the army's strongest card in trying to maintain its authority in the state in opposition to the moderate Islamist government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose AK party was re-elected in July.

There is no doubt that the PKK did carry out last Sunday's attack. But the Iraqi Kurds believe – and it is a view supported by diplomats in Ankara – that at least some of the recent attacks on Turkish security forces were the work of an extreme faction within the Turkish army. The PKK denies, for instance, that it carried out a raid in which 12 village guards – a pro-government home guard – were shot dead in Beytussebap recently. The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, also points out that the PKK is notoriously riddled with Turkish agents.

It is a strange crisis because Mr Erdogan, for all his threats to send 100,000 Turkish soldiers in pursuit of the PKK, is doing everything to avoid an attack. He has pointed out that the 24 previous Turkish invasions of Iraq have achieved little and the 3,000 PKK guerrillas can easily hide in caves and bunkers until the Turks have left. An attack would anger the US, the Iraqi government, the Kurdistan regional government and the Turkish Kurds who voted for Mr Erdogan in July.

The Iraqi government is a weak player in all this because it does not control the north of Iraq, which is firmly under the authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Not surprisingly, Turkish-Iraqi talks in Ankara aimed at averting an invasion collapsed on Friday.

Mr Erdogan is off to see President George Bush in Washington in 10 days' time, but the US is disinclined to become embroiled with Turkey through which come much of the military supplies for the US army in Baghdad. The KRG is the only force in Iraq capable of acting against the guerrillas, but Turkey refuses to talk to its leaders, essentially because they are Kurds.

There is also a suspicion among Iraqi Kurds that it is they and not the minnows of the PKK who will be the real target of a Turkish invasion. Turkey has watched with dismay since 2003 as the Iraqi Kurds created what is in effect the first de facto independent Kurdish state that is stronger than half the members of the UN.

A referendum in Kirkuk mandated by the Iraqi constitution should take place by the end of this year, though it may now be delayed, and a vote would probably lead to the oil-rich province joining the KRG. Such a result is anathema to Turkey but it is not clear what it could do to stop it.

For all Mr Erdogan's efforts to talk tough but delay military action, another attack would make it impossible for him to avoid ordering an incursion. There are those in the PKK or the Turkish army who will make sure that just such a provocation does take place.

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