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Originally Published: 2/27/2008


By The Issue Wonk



The Kurdish people used to have their own nation – Kurdistan – dating back before 2400 BCE. Their territory primarily included what is now eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran. Currently its territory in northern Iraq is the area that was previously known as the “No Fly Zone” during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Today only the Kurds of northern Iraq are recognized as a people.


In the early 1900s, Turkey incorporated Kurdish regions and, since that time, there has been a long-running battle between the two. Turkish Kurds want separation and the Kurds in general want their own nation again. Turkey claims that Kurdish rebels continuously cross the border into Turkey to aid Turkish Kurds in various forms of rebellion against the Turkish government. Turkey raises this claim frequently and it’s usually followed by some kind of incursion into Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. Kurds claim that Turkey wants to exterminate them. Since 1990, Turkey has made 3 military forays into Kurdish territory claiming it was provoked by the PKK – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – who, they claim, have “carried out violent attacks in Turkey since the 1980s, fighting for a separate Kurdish state.”1


Recent Events.  That the Turks and the Kurds are at it again isn’t a surprise. What is different this time is that the Kurds have a strong hand in the administration of the new Iraqi government. When the current hostilities first broke out in August 2007, the United States immediately sided with Turkey, a long-time ally. President Bush proposed a joint military operation between Turkey and the U.S. “to suppress Kurdish guerrillas and capture their leaders,” supposedly to keep Turkey from invading Iraq. Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman briefed lawmakers about their plans, which called for secret U.S. involvement to assist Turkish action against the PKK.2


By October 2007 the Turks were convinced they were in a fight for their lives with the Kurds. Kurdish “terrorist attacks” killed 30 Turks in two weeks and the Turks were determined to invade Iraq.3 One of Iraq’s vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, went to Turkey to urge them not to invade northern Iraq.4 It didn’t work. The Turkish parliament overwhelmingly passed authorization for a military incursion into northern Iraq to target Kurdish rebels. The vote amounted to “a blunt request for the United States to acknowledge Turkey’s status as an important ally.” Apparently the Turkish government was hoping that the threat of a military incursion would put pressure on the U.S. and Iraq to go after the “Kurdish rebels.”5


Late in October the real hostilities began. Kurdish fighters killed Turkish soldiers close to the Iraq border. Turkey responded by shelling the Kurds.6 Bush was reportedly considering air strikes, including cruise missiles, against the Kurds in an attempt to avoid a Turkish invasion.7


At the same time, Kurds were also crossing the border into Iran and it was reported that they killed 150 Iranian soldiers and officials since August. The Kurds on the Iranian border are from the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK, an offshoot of the PKK. However, Bush didn’t condemn their actions and Iran claimed that they were receiving aid from the Bush administration. The U.S. classifies the PKK as a terrorist group but not the PJAK, even though they appear to be pretty much the same. The leader of the PJAK was in Washington last summer, but a diplomat denied that he had met with any administration officials.8


Tensions have continued to rise. By late December, Turkish warplanes bombed PKK targets in northern Iraq. Iraq claimed that 10 Kurdish villages were bombed.9 The Turkish military claimed that the bombing was “an American-sanctioned effort,” but U.S. officials denied it.10 However, Pentagon officials said that they were giving “real-time intelligence” to Turkey about the PKK. Turkey then used that information to carry out the attacks.11 One official said the U.S. is “essentially handing them their targets” and then saying that Turkey can use the information as it sees fit. Iraq was not happy about it.12


Recently Turkish warplanes bombed suspected Kurdish PKK fighters and then invaded Iraq in pursuit of “separatist Kurdish rebels.” Reports were that Turkey had somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 troops but the U.S. said there were only “several hundred” troops. “Turkey gave the United States and Iraqi authorities advance notice of its incursion, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.”13


The clash continued for several days, straining ties between the United States and the Iraqi Kurds who pleaded with Washington to pressure the Turkish military to end its incursion. Kurdish officials do not support the PKK rebels.  Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said that Turkey had gone beyond targeting PKK and was harming civilians and the economy of northern Iraq. He criticized the U.S. government for allowing Turkish aircraft to enter Iraqi airspace and said that the Iraqi central government was not taking a sufficiently firm stand against the incursion. He said the region’s president, Massoud Barzani, had sent an urgent message to President Bush requesting that he intervene to urge Turkey to leave Iraq.14 


Iraq’s government demanded that Turkey withdraw its troops and urged them to sit down for talks to resolve the issues. Iraq has repeatedly called for diplomatic solutions to the PKK presence in Turkey, “saying it has taken some measures to deal with the rebels but is more focused on trying to stabilize the rest of the country.”15


Kurds and the U.S.  Kurdish territory was protected for years as the “No Fly Zone." Kurds were in favor of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Their unqualified support of U.S. actions has led to their attaining “unprecedented rights.” The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have formed an alliance with some minor parties and now constitute “the second largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament, holding 54 seats. . .  Collectively, these Kurdish nationalists constitute the strongest pro-American bloc in the Iraqi parliament.”16 The United States took advantage of it’s Kurdish support and used its influence to develop the new Iraqi constitution to require super-majorities for key pieces of legislation, “giving the Kurdish nationalists effective veto power against legislation deemed harmful to U.S. Interests.”17 That the U.S. has fostered Kurdish independence is not in dispute.


Baghdad has virtually no jurisdiction in the northern part of their country and Iraqi Kurdistan has evolved into a de facto independent state. Foreigners entering northern Iraq now have their passports stamped not with the official Iraqi insignia, but with one for “Iraqi Kurdistan.” Though the Kurdish flag is omnipresent, any display of the Iraqi national flag is effectively forbidden. Signs are in Kurdish, virtually none are in Arabic. Iraqi government troops are forbidden from entering the region without expressed approval of the Kurdish parliament.16


Turkey and the U.S.  Turkey has long been afraid of its Kurdish population, who is constantly demanding independence. With the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, it’s obvious why Turkey is getting more hostile about the PKK forays into its territory. However, the U.S. has a long-standing alliance with Turkey, who “has long topped the list of U.S. arms importers and recipients of U.S. military aid.”17 Indeed, the value of Turkey to the United States is immense.


Considered a strategic NATO ally, Turkey has benefited from a U.S. policy that is long on military assistance and short on constructive criticism. Washington values close ties with Turkey both as a secular state with a predominately Muslim population and as a buffer between Europe and the Middle East and Caucasus regions. Once valued as a deterrent to the Soviet threat, Turkey is now considered a key ally in stopping terrorism, drug trafficking, and Islamic fundamentalism from seeping across the Bosporus Straits. Turkey also offers opportunities as an emerging market and a potential site for the Caspian Sea oil pipeline. Finally, Turkey won U.S. favor by supporting the Gulf War, participating in Bosnian peacekeeping, and providing a base for U.S. fighter planes monitoring the “no-fly-zone” in northern Iraq.17


The U.S. Conundrum.  So, we can see why the United States has a problem with the fighting between the Kurds and Turkey. Indeed, it’s probably U.S. actions that have bolstered Kurdish autonomy, and that has exacerbated hostilities between the two and led to the recent conflicts. Both are key allies providing different kinds of support and aid to the U.S. In addition, the forays of the Kurdish PJAK into Iran are quite welcome by the Bush administration. However, it seems to me that with the close ties to both, the United States is in a perfect position to broker some kind of an agreement or peace treaty between the two, an action requested by the Kurds and encouraged by the Iraqi government. At the very least the U.S. could stay neutral on the issue. So, why is Bush aiding and abetting Turkish attacks on the Kurds?


Hydrocarbon Framework Law.  Formerly known as Production Sharing Agreements (PSAs), now known as Exploration and Risk Contracts (ERCs), passing a national oil law has been the cornerstone of Bush’s view of success in Iraq. The Hydrocarbon Framework Law (HFL) would permit foreign participation in oil field development but does not set forth the terms of agree-ments with foreign companies. Nouri al-Maliki’s government promised Bush the new oil law would be enacted by the end of 2006, but “objections from the Kurds, who wanted a greater role awarding contracts and administering the revenues” derailed it.18


The Council of Ministers for the Oil and Energy Committee came up with draft legislation February 2007. The Iraqi cabinet approved part of it, which included the ERCs. It was sent to parliament for final approval, but has not yet been approved. The second part of the law which would share the oil revenues with the 3 regions (northern Kurdish, southern Shia, and western Sunni) hasn’t not yet been ironed out. Kurdistan’s regional government already “has a system in place for entering into contracts for oil field exploration and development and doesn’t want the new Oil Council usurping its authority.”19, 20


Bush’s Position.  Iraqi Kurdistan’s push for total autonomy is at odds with Baghdad and President Bush, both of whom want a strong central government. And, as I said before, this oil law which would allow oil companies to control Iraqi oil, giving Iraqis little in return, is what Bush sees as “success” in Iraq. However, it is being vigorously opposed by the Kurds21 and, given their power in the Iraqi government, they have been able to block this measure so important to Bush and western oil companies.


All of this makes one wonder if Bush’s support of Turkey against the Kurds is punishment for their stand against the Hydrocarbon Law. And that makes one wonder if the Kurdish forays into Iran are a way of appeasing Bush without giving in on the oil issue. There is much here to speculate about, but it’s clear that things are heating up. Bush cannot leave office without this oil law in place and the Kurds don’t appear to be anywhere near giving it to him. Keep your eye on this.




1  Tavernise, Sabrina. Turkey Rattles Its Sabers at Militant Kurds in Iraq. The New York Times, June 8, 2007.


2  Novak, Robert D. Bush’s Turkish Gamble. Washington Post, July 30, 2007.


3  Moore, Molly & Wright, Robin.  U.S. Urges Turkish Restraint on Kurds: Strike Could Imperil Broader War in Iraq. Washington Post, October 14, 2007.


4  Arsu, Sebnem. Iraq Moves to Dissuade Turkey From Raids. The New York Times, October 17, 2007.


5  Arsu, Sebnem & Tavernise, Sabrina. Turkey Resolves to Give Go-Ahead for Raids in Iraq. The New York Times, October 18, 2007.


6  Tavernise, Sabrina. Iraq and Turkey See Tensions Rise After Ambush. The New York Times, October 22, 2007.


7  Herald Sun. Bush Offers to Bomb Kurds, October 24, 2007.


8  Oppel, Richard A., Jr. In Iraq, Conflict Simmers on 2nd Kurdish Front. The New York Times, October 23, 2007.


9  MacAskill, Ewen. Turkey Launches Biggest Bombing Raid on Kurdish Rebels In Iraq. Guardian, December 17, 2007.


10 Tavernise, Sabrina. Turkey Bombs Kurdish Militants in Northern Iraq. The New York Times, December 17, 2007.


11 Tyson, Ann Scott & Wright, Robin. U.S. Helps Turkey Hit Rebel Kurds in Iraq. Washington Post, December 18, 2007.


12 Cave, Damien. Iraq Leaders Denounce Bombings by Turkey. The New York Times, December 18, 2007.


13 The Associated Press. Turkish Military Kills 41 Kurdish Rebels. The New York Times, February 25, 2008.


14 Paley, Amit R. & Partlow, Joshua. Blast Kills at Least 40 Shiite Pilgrims in Iraq: Fighting in North Intensifies; Turkish Soldiers, Kurdish Guerrillas Clash for Fourth Day. Washington Post, February 25, 2008.


15 Reuters. Iraq Condemns Turkish Incursion and Wants Troops Out. The New York Times, February 26, 2008.


16 Zunes, Stephen. The United States and the Kurds: A Brief History. Foreign Policy in Focus, October 25, 2007.


17 Gabelnick, Tamar. Turkey: Arms and Human Rights. Foreign Policy in Focus, May, 1999.


18 Associated Press. Kurds Support New Oil Law, A Key Benchmark: Agreement to Share Oil Wealth Could Open Economy to New Investments. MSNBC, February 24, 2007.


19 Rubin, Alissa J. Iraqi Cabinet Moves Forward on Oil Measure. The New York Times, July 4, 2007.


20 Daragahi, Borzou. Kurdish Oil Deal Shocks Iraq’s Political Leaders. Los Angeles Times, preserved at Global Policy Forum, December 1, 2005.


21 Al Jazeera. Kurds to Block Iraq Oil Law, April 29, 2007.



© The Issue Wonk, 2008



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