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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 October 2007, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
Diplomatic pressure builds on Turkey
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Turkish convoy near border
Turkish convoy heading towards Iraq border

Intense diplomatic efforts have continued to try to head off a major Turkish operation against fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, in northern Iraq.

The crisis is more than just a long-running dispute between Turkey and its Kurdish minority. The Kurds occupy territory across not just Turkey, but Iraq, Iran and Syria as well. Their dream has been for an independent state but this has proved an impossibility. The Kurds in Iraq have autonomy in the north and have done well since the removal of Saddam Hussein.

It has been the Kurds in Turkey who have been the most militant. Under pressure from the EU, which Turkey wants to join, its tight grip on the Kurds has been loosened over recent years with more liberal legislation. The PKK has been forced into northern Iraq much more as Kurdish political parties in Turkey go down a more political path.

One issue here is how far the Kurds of northern Iraq are willing to tolerate the PKK Kurds, who might undermine the growing prosperity of the north.

Western diplomats believe that Turkey will launch an operation unless the United States can engineer some significant moves against the PKK.

The latest PKK attack, near the village of Daglica on the Turkish side of the border with Iraq, killed 12 Turkish soldiers. Eight others are missing.

The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after meeting the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London on Tuesday that Turkish troops could enter northern Iraq "at any time". However, he did not indicate any timetable and gave no impression that such an incursion was imminent.

For his part, Mr Brown stressed British support for Turkey.

The Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan stated after talks in Baghdad: "Politics, dialogue, diplomacy, culture and economy are the measures to deal with this crisis." The Iraqis have promised to help but to what extent is yet to be determined. The role of the regional Kurdish government in northern Iraq could be the key.

It seems therefore that the diplomatic pressure is having an effect for the time being.

Turkey looking for action

However, the crisis is not over and Turkey will expect results. The results it wants are action against the PKK camps in northern Iraq and, ideally, the handing over of PKK leaders. The first might be a more realistic expectation than the second.

The US is leading the diplomatic charge, concerned that if it does not stand by Turkey, then Turkish support for the US war in Iraq, important logistically, might diminish. Washington is urging the Iraqi government to fulfil the security agreement reached between Iraq and Turkey on 28 September. This was designed to curb the activities of the PKK separatists.

The US is proposing a meeting of a tripartite committee of the US, Turkey and Iraq during a regional conference scheduled for Istanbul on 2-3 November.

map

The first signs of success came when the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, announced that the PKK would call a ceasefire.

However, it has called several ceasefires since its leader Abdullah Ocalan declared an end to its war for Kurdish independence after he was captured in 1999, and clearly the call has not been accepted by all its elements.

Critical moment

This is seen by diplomats as a crucial moment for Turkey's future direction - whether it will listen to, and be helped by, its Western allies, or whether it turns back to looking after its own interests without regard for the wider implications.

There has been talk that the US might even mount a joint operation, perhaps an air attack, with Turkey on the PKK encampments. However American officials in Iraq are worried about the knock-on effect in Iraq. Admiral Greg Smith told the BBC from Baghdad: "We are really now on a path to growing stability in Iraq and to have that current in the north is of concern to all."

The safe havens of 1991

If the Turks do go in on the ground in a major way - they already shell PKK targets in Iraq and carry out limited hot-pursuit operations - the issue might not be decided easily.

The border between Turkey and Iraq is mountainous. The area became familiar to the outside world in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi Kurds fled into southern Turkey to escape the rampages of Saddam Hussein's troops.

It was clear at the time that this was a sensitive area. The PKK had been active throughout it, though it went quiet during the refugees crisis. I remember driving south along empty roads and being told by local experts that the PKK often attacked from the surrounding mountains. Turkish troops were often on patrol there. As foreign reporters filed their stories from dingy hotels and telephone exchanges manned by soldiers, Kurds would often whisper some hostile comments about the military.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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