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Analysis by Jacques N. Couvas

Turkey Expecting Troops to Cross Iraq Border at any Time

(IPS) ANKARA -- It seems now certain: No invasion of Northern Iraq by the Turkish army before the legislative elections scheduled for July 22. Disappointed? Many in Turkey are, not least the military. Surprised? Not a bit. Prime Minister Erdogan's fingers are expert at navigating between buttons of the yellow and red traffic lights of the road to Arbil.

The decision late July 9 by Erdogan to postpone military operations on Iraqi soil with the purpose of neutralizing the armed militia of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) had been anticipated by opposition leaders. Statements a week earlier by the head of the government on his decision to order the intervention, subject to parliamentary approval, during an impromptu meeting with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, were viewed as cunning.

Erdogan, in his meeting with the President, had obviously played the card of reconciliation in the interest of the nation, while under pressure by Sezer, who was voicing the concerns of a large part of the population, and particularly that of the armed forces, over the government's inaction against Iraq-based PKK guerrillas.

The Prime Minister a week ago had little space to manoeuvre, as the President could, theoretically at least, and in time of recess of the national assembly, decide to switch on the green light and let the military have their way. So, Erdogan let everyone believe that he was prepared to call for an extraordinary session of the parliament to decide on the military incursion.

Late Monday night, on Turkish television, the Prime Minister was cool about the whole issue and simply clarified that "the possibility of getting parliamentary approval for an operation is not on our agenda right now."

Did he change his mind, or is it yet another political move during the last straight line before the elections? A reason for the new position, put forward by members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), is that the timing for a full-scale offensive in Iraq is bad, as any distraction of the population could be detrimental to the democratic process.

More likely are other considerations, both internal and external. Turkish Kurds, an ethnic minority with political rights, are spread over eleven provinces in the southeastern part of the country and in isolated villages in other regions, with their total number estimated to be around 12 million, although official population statistics show less than ten million.

A large ethnically-Kurdish community lives in Istanbul and its suburbs. In recent years, Kurdish migration has expanded to other major urban areas of Western Turkey. Some Kurds have succeeded as tradesmen or qualified workers, but many lead poor lives in growing shanty suburbs around large cities.

Kurds from the most impoverished areas have shown allegiance to the AKP in recent years. Like Turks, they are Sunni Muslims, but their devotion to religion is pronounced; it is therefore understandable that the Islamist-origin governing party prefers caution on a matter as sensitive as a major offensive against the PKK just days before the elections.

But there is evidence that Erdogan is also taking into account external factors in his cautious approach towards PKK in Northern Iraq. According to sources here, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a telephone conversation last Friday with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, requested that Turkey wait for the steps the U.S. and the Iraqi central government would take against the PKK before launching an operation. Earlier reports said Rice got no firm assurance from Gul that Turkey would not carry out a cross-border operation.

Erdogan said on Monday he was concerned over recent PKK suicide attacks against Turkmen minorities living in Northern Iraq, the defense of which is given as one of the reasons for Turkish military incursion into that area. In spite of the chronic irritation of his government over the Iraqi authorities' inaction to prevent such events, he reiterated his proposal that the whole matter be dealt with through trilateral talks between Turkey, Iraq and the U.S.

In reality, Turkey is disappointed with U.S. support to the Iraqi government and its tolerance of PKK's growing terrorist actions within Eastern Turkey, with use of sophisticated foreign-supplied weapons. The Iraqi government has repeatedly reassured Turkey of its willingness to clamp down on the guerrillas.

The Turkish population, regardless of geography, political affiliation, or social class, is increasingly vocal in its anti-Americanism, as recent polls have revealed, and the press reflects on a daily basis. Ahead of the elections, some candidates adroitly use the "ugly American" card, and conspiracy theories abound.

Many analysts, including business executives and academics, seem genuinely convinced that the U.S. government is planning to create a Kurdish state, cutting into Iraq and Turkey, in a model inspired by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

An opinion poll conducted in June on behalf of an Istanbul private university showed that 35.6 percent of Turks consider the United States, a NATO ally, a threat to their nation. The formation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq ranks second as a major threat, with 25.8 percent, and even Israel is perceived as inimical to Turkish national interests by 4.2 percent of the persons interviewed.

The rationale for Americano-phobia is that, by creating an independent Kurdish state, the U.S. would seek to destabilise Syria and Iran, whose populations include large numbers of ethnic Kurds -- ranging between ten and seven percent of the country citizens.

An argument advanced to support this theory is that the Kurds of Iraq, who represent 20 to 25 percent of the country's population, were instrumental in the demise of Saddam's regime. They could, accordingly, be used to undermine social peace in Iran and Syria.

Rumors on the streets of Ankara and other cities around the country, as well as in the editorial offices of newspapers and TV stations, purport that the Turkish security services are in possession of videotapes of weapon deliveries by U.S. military staff to PKK combatants in Northern Iraq. These, say critics of the Bush administration, are proofs of U.S. perfidy.

Although the Prime Minister's reasons to postpone the march to Arbil in northern Iraq are consistent with his pragmatism in many areas of his governance so far, it is less clear what the feelings, and plans, of the army are after Monday's news. It would seem unlikely that the, mildly put, 90-degree turn in policy, although temporary, could have been announced to action-hungry armed forces without previous consensus among the military staff, the presidency and the government. According to current reports, 80 percent of active career officers have submitted voluntary declarations for deployment in the combat zone.

A claim on Monday by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd from Northern Iraq, that Turkey had massed 140,000 soldiers on its border with Iraq put nerves to test both sides of the border. Turkey's military command had no comment, and the U.S. State Department said there has been no such massive build-up. Turkey possesses the largest military force among NATO member states, after the U.S.

In reality, however, Turkish forces are already operating within 15 to 25 Km (10 to 15 miles) beyond the border, in what is called an anti-terrorist and policing operation, with the tacit acceptance of the Iraqi government and the U.S. occupation authorities.

As Turkish tank commanders patiently queue up before the red light to the East, it is everyone's guess when, or whether, Erdogan's fingers will find the green button.

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Albion Monitor   July 11, 2007   (

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