February 7, 2003
U.S. in Talks on Allowing Turkey to Occupy a Kurdish Area in Iraq
NKARA, Turkey, Feb. 6 — American diplomats are engaged in delicate negotiations here that could allow tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers to occupy part of northern Iraq behind an advancing American army, Turkish and Kurdish officials said today.
A United States official confirmed that the negotiations were under way, but said that the Turks would be restricted to a limited area close to the border and that the numbers discussed by the Turks and Kurds were exaggerated.
The plan, which is being negotiated in closed-door meetings in Ankara, the Turkish capital, is being bitterly resisted by at least some leaders of Iraq's Kurdish groups, who fear that Turkey's leaders may be trying to realize a historic desire to dominate the region in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The Kurdish officials say they fear a military intervention by the Turks could also prompt Iran to cross the border and try to seize sections of eastern Iraq.
American diplomats and senior military commanders, led by President Bush's special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, are said to be encouraging the Kurdish leaders to accept the Turkish proposal. While Washington has strongly supported the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq over the past 12 years, it is eager to secure the permission of Turkey's leaders to use Turkey's bases for a possible attack on Iraq.
The proposed deal between the Americans and the Turks moved closer to fruition today when the Turkish Parliament voted to allow American engineers to begin preparing Turkish military bases for possible use by American troops. A vote on whether to allow American troops to use those bases is scheduled for Feb. 18.
The size of each projected military force — American and Turkish — is still unclear. American officials had sought to base as many as 80,000 troops in Turkey. But some Turkish officials have suggested that the American force will be significantly smaller, perhaps no more than 15,000 to 20,000. In negotiations today, Turkish officials said they wanted their forces to outnumber American ones by a ratio of two to one.
With a war looming, Turkey has sought assurances from the Americans that the toppling of Mr. Hussein would not result in the establishment of an independent Kurdish state, which it fears would encourage a revolt by Turkish Kurds.
Turkey's leaders are determined to prevent a repeat of the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when southeastern Turkey was swamped by a half million Kurdish refugees fleeing attacks by the Iraqi Army. Turkish officials say that pro-Kurdish guerrillas crossed into Turkey along with the refugees, igniting a bloody insurgency that the Turkish military has been battling ever since.
But some Kurds are making it clear that they do not want the Turks crossing Iraq's northern border.
"We have told the Americans and the Turks that any outside intervention would not be welcomed," said Safeen M. Dizayee, an official with the Iraq-based Kurdish Democratic Party, who took part in the talks. "I hope it would not get out of control. But it could be suicidal to get into something like this if it undermines political stability."
A United States official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that the Turks were proposing to send troops into northern Iraq but said that their role would be sharply limited. The official said that the Turkish troops would be limited to a portion of Iraqi territory near the Turkish border, and that the forces would focus primarily on humanitarian problems and on discouraging people from fleeing to Turkey. Moreover, he said, the Turkish forces would be under American command and would not be mixing with the Kurdish troops.
"It would be in a limited area, close to the border," the official said.
One of the aims of the current negotiations, the official continued, was to bring the Kurds and the Turks to an understanding about a possible Turkish intervention.
Indeed, there were signs that Iraq's Kurdish leaders were showing a willingness to work with Turkey's new government, which has deep Islamic roots and won a majority of seats in the Turkish Parliament last November. Massoud Barzani, the leader of one of the two major Kurdish groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, was said to have felt comfortable with Turkey's leaders during a recent visit there.
"He was very impressed with the Turkish government," Fawzi Hariri, a party spokesman, said of Mr. Barzani. "He thought they were genuine and that he could trust them."
But statements by Turkish officials suggested that their plans might be more ambitious. A Turkish official confirmed today that his government was planning to send troops into northern Iraq in numbers that would exceed those dispatched by the Americans.
The Turkish officials echoed comments made Wednesday by the Turkish prime minister, Abdullah Gul. He suggested that the Turkish Army's role would go beyond humanitarian concerns to protecting Turkish interests in the region.
"Turkey is going to position herself in that region in order to prevent any possible massacres, or the establishment of a new state," Mr. Gul told Turkish reporters.
The Turkish official, like Mr. Gul, said the Turkish troops would not take part in combat with the Iraqis but would instead seek to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. The official said the Turks could also check any re-emergence of the Kurdish insurgency that operated in southeastern Turkey during the 1990's.
The official made it clear that the Turkish troops would protect themselves if they came under attack.
In recent weeks the Turks have been building their forces on the border, and some 1,200 Turkish troops are already operating in parts of northern Iraq, mainly to hunt down pro-Kurdish guerrillas who might be trying to cross into Turkey.
Mr. Dizayee referred to the various Turkish rationales for intervention as "pretexts." Like many Kurdish leaders, Mr. Dizayee expressed pride in the democratic institutions the Kurds have built during their 12 years of autonomy. He expressed dismay at the prospect that those institutions might be swamped by an American-led military attack.
"We think these democratic institutions have set a precedent for the rest of Iraq," Mr. Dizayee said. "If they were undermined, it would reflect badly on the whole operation."
The American-led talks appear to be focused on choreographing the nearly simultaneous entry of American combat troops and Turkish soldiers into northern Iraq. One official with the other major Kurdish group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said Mr. Khalilzad had called the meeting to give each group its final marching orders for what appears to be an imminent war.
One element of the plan, the Kurdish official said, was to ensure that both Turkish and Kurdish forces left the northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Kirkuk to the American forces. Those cities are the centers of oil production in the region, and Washington plans to grab the oil fields before either Iraq destroys them or the Kurds seize them.
The senior official with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said the Kurds were eagerly anticipating the arrival of American soldiers, but not that of the Turks.
"We regard America as liberators," the official said. "And our neighbors as looters."