Kurds' vow to fight Turkish invaders poses new problem for Bush coalition

Patrick Cockburn,Northern Iraq
Tuesday 04 March 2003 01:00

The American plan to form a northern front against Saddam Hussein slipped deeper into crisis yesterday when Kurdish leaders made clear they would resist any attempt by Turkey to occupy Iraqi Kurdistan, even if it was a member of the American-led coalition.

The Kurds have already declared they would fight if Turkey unilaterally occupied a swath of territory in northern Iraq with the intention of limiting Kurdish influence in Iraq after the overthrow of President Saddam.

Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader, said yesterday that even if Turkey joined the coalition in the war against Baghdad the Kurds would have to be assured that this was not a smokescreen for the occupation of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Mr Zebari, picking his words carefully, said: "Unless the end-game is clear we will resist."

The Kurds fear America might fix up a deal whereby Turkey nominally joined the coalition against President Saddam, but in practice would seek to extinguish the de facto independence enjoyed by the Iraqi Kurds for the past decade.

The plan to squeeze President Saddam, with American forces advancing from the north as well as the south, was already in disarray after the Turkish parliament rejected a deal on Saturday for Turkey to provide bases for US troops.

Washington now faces the problem that, even if it eventually reaches an agreement with Turkey, the first shots of a second war with Iraq could be fired between two of its allies, the Turks and the Kurds.

Yesterday tens of thousands of Kurdish demonstrators poured through the streets of Arbil, the largest Kurdish city, chanting: "Yes to Liberation! No to Occupation!" Fear of a Turkish invasion has made many Kurds believe they might be the first casualties of an American-led war. The Iraqi opposition is seeking to send a delegation to Ankara to persuade Turkey not to attack, but it will not go unless the Turkish government says it will receive them. It also wants America to join the talks.

Many Kurds believe that they are on the eve of a third betrayal by the US, saying that Washington had twice let them down in the past; once in 1975 when President Saddam crushed a Kurdish rebellion and again in 1991 when he destroyed the Kurdish uprising after the Gulf War.

Mr Zebari was more diplomatic about Kurdish suspicions. But he said: "The Turks and the Americans have kept us in the dark." He added that the Iraqi Kurds had received mixed signals from Turkey, with one official telling them the Turkish army would "advance 60km [37 miles] which would mean occupation". If America does allow Turkey to launch its own war against the Kurds in Iraq, Mr Zebari said, "clashes would be unavoidable". The Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls western Kurdistan, has a regular army of 62,000 men, though some 12,000 of these are involved in logistics and administration. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has a somewhat smaller regular force of about 40,000 men. In the face of the Turkish threat the KDP and the PUK have established a joint military command and deployed some Peshmerga [Kurdish soldiers] closer to the border with Turkey.

The only circumstances in which Kurds might accept Turkish soldiers crossing into northern Iraq is if they were under American command and on their way to attack Iraqi forces further south. They would also need to know when the Turkish army was planning to withdraw from Iraq.

At heart the Kurdish leaders know that the de facto independence of Kurdistan depended on peculiar circumstances. America and Britain provided a military guarantee through regular air patrols. This would end with the installation of a pro-American government in Baghdad.

By becoming the focal point of the Iraqi opposition in recent months the Kurds want to make sure that they are not politically isolated in future. The best guarantee of their autonomy in a federal Iraq is to ensure that they are a strong political power in Baghdad in a post-Saddam era.

The Kurdish leaders also need to keep good relations with America, on whom they ultimately rely for their security against Turkey. They were gratified by the arrival of Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington's envoy to the Iraqi opposition, on their territory for an opposition conference that ended on Saturday. To emphasise that they are not a negligible military force Kurdish troops lined the road down which Mr Khalilzad returned to Turkey.

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