Last month, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani visited Ankara for a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul to discuss, among other things, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, issue. The PKK currently controls an enclave in northeastern Iraq. The Iraqi Kurdish parties - Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) - flank the PKK enclave. The United States is currently cooperating with Turkey in its operations against the PKK by providing intelligence support. But this cooperation will not be successful unless the Iraqi Kurds, who have the ability to block the PKK enclave, come on board and take a stand against the group.
What can Iraqi Kurds do in this regard and how would this affect their relationship with Turkey?
The Iraqi Kurds reaped the benefits of an alliance with the US in 2003 by providing it with assistance against Saddam Hussein's regime. Since then, the KDP and PUK have resisted increasing US pressure to take action against the PKK enclave, from where the PKK has carried out terrorist attacks against Turkey. The Iraqi Kurds cooperated with Turkey significantly against the PKK in the 1990s; during that time Turkey provided the Iraqi Kurds with vital commercial and physical access to the outside world, bypassing the Saddam Hussein regime. Turkey also supplied the Iraqi Kurds with crucial protection and access to US military support against Saddam from the Incirlik base in southern Turkey.
However, since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, and with the end of Saddam's rule, the KDP and PUK have ignored that deal with Turkey. In due course, they suspended cooperation with Ankara against the PKK. Furthermore, according to Western security contractors in Iraq, local Kurdish forces are now protecting the PKK and its associated groups by facilitating or providing them with logistical support.
Because the Iraqi Kurdish leadership does not acknowledge the PKK as a terrorist organization, PKK militants can travel unhindered in northern Iraq provided, in some cases, that they inform the local Iraqi Kurdish authorities. Journalists are also given access to the PKK enclave. For example, last March 8 a Washington Post correspondent reported from there, explaining that the enclave was controlled by neither local Kurdish authorities nor the Iraqi government.
If they are to be regarded as an established authority in northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds ought to take action against the PKK presence in their region. The PKK has illegally seized Iraqi territory. Its enclave benefits from logistical support from areas controlled by the PUK and KDP.
Turkish officials believe that Iraqi Kurds view the PKK as a potential bargaining chip in exchange for Turkish recognition of Kurdish autonomy, or a probable declaration of independence by the Iraqi Kurds. While the Iraqi Kurds have strong ties to the US, their policy of ignoring Turkey may be shortsighted. Once the bulk of the US military leaves the region, the Iraqi Kurds will be surrounded by Iraqi Arabs to the south, Syria to the west and Iran to the east - all neighbors the Iraqi Kurds have reason to fear. When this comes to pass, the Iraqi Kurds will need Turkey both for protection and for access to the US military in Incirlik.
Ankara views the PKK much in the way that the US viewed Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11. Presently, northeastern Iraq resembles Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, in the sense that both are lawless areas in which terrorist groups have set up shop. Hence, just as the US military has targeted Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, Turkey will likely continue to tackle the PKK presence in neighboring Iraq.
In this regard, there are a number of key steps that the Iraqi Kurds could take with respect to the PKK issue. The first would be to recognize that the PKK is a terrorist organization, a measure that would allow the Iraqi Kurds to come on board with Turkey, the United States and the Iraqi government in this regard. Second, the KDP and PUK might be well served to consider denying the use of their land by the PKK and preventing logistical support from their cities to the PKK enclave.
Finally, the Iraqi Kurds could cooperate with Turkey against the PKK as they did in the 1990s. They could help arrest some of the PKK's leaders and destroy PKK facilities as well as facilitating Turkish policing of PKK camps. Such steps would elevate Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish ties to the level they were at in the 1990s, and even beyond.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's latest proposal, made at the summit of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference in Senegal's capital Dakar on March 13, 2008, according to which Iran, Turkey and Iraq should work together to defeat the PKK terrorists while respecting each other's territorial integrity, has already made inroads in Turkey. Indeed, the idea should push everyone to see the bigger picture on the PKK issue: The continued PKK presence in northeastern Iraq not only drives a wedge between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds but also has the potential of bringing Turkey closer to other regional alliances.
* Published in Lebanon's THE DAILY STAR on April 30, 2008. Abdulkadir Onay is a visiting fellow in the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This commentary first appeared at Bitterlemons International, an online newsletter.