Turkish threat lays open Baghdad-Kurd divide

BAGHDAD - Mixed Iraqi reactions to the threat of an incursion by Turkey have revealed the conflicting agendas of the central government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish administration in the north.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to Ankara that he would bring an end to the presence in northern Iraq of rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), who he has labelled "terrorists" several times in recent days.

Ahead of Turkey's parliamentary vote Wednesday which authorised military action, Maliki assured Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan he was "absolutely determined to end the activities and the presence" of the PKK on Iraqi soil.

In one of a flurry of conciliatory statements on Tuesday he called for "urgent negotiations" between Baghdad and Ankara and announced he was sending a high-level delegation to ensure peace was kept with his Turkish neighbours.

Compare this with the reaction of Iraqi Kurd leaders who have warned against making any concessions in the face of Ankara's threats.

"The Iraqi government is taking a position of giving in to Turkey," senior Kurdish politician Mahmud Othman said in an interview with AFP.

"Iraqi-Turkish dialogue without Kurdish representation will not reach a successful conclusion because the issue is about this region," he added.

For all Maliki's talk of action, the situation on the ground means his options are limited: the Iraqi army is not deployed on the Turkish border, nor even in the region, which is controlled by Iraqi Kurdish fighters or peshmergas.

Since it was placed under the protection of the United States in 1991, after the Gulf War, the province of Kurdistan has distanced itself more and more from Iraq's central government.

After the fall of Saddam in 2003 and the passage of a constitution guaranteeing its autonomy in 2005, it has followed its own course of economic, social and political development.

And during the last years of violence, it has been largely spared the sectarian strife and economic upheaval that has wrecked most of the rest of the country.

Kurds, who count for 20 percent of the 26 million Iraqis, hold central roles in the new Iraqi institutions: the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is a Kurd, and the Iraqi parliament has 53 Kurdish MPs -- out of 275 -- who support the majority government.

At the same time, Kurdistan has acquired its own parliament, including a government and a president: Massud Barzani, whose family have been at the heart of the Kurdish struggle for independence from Baghdad for generations.

Turkey has accused Barzani's forces of tolerating the PKK and even providing it with weapons.

"PKK members are present in the Kurdistan region but the regional government is preventing them from carrying out any attacks against Turkish targets," Othman said.

"The Kurdistan government has proposed to the Turkish side that it issue an amnesty to PKK fighters and allow them to return to Turkey to engage in political activity, but the Turkish side refuses this proposal," he said.

The speaker of the Kurdish parliament, Adnan al-Mufti, went even further in his defiance of the Turkish sabre-rattling, saying they were not really after the rebels but wanted to eliminate the idea of an autonomous Kurdistan.

"This assault is targeting the region of Kurdistan as a whole and not just the PKK," he said.

After the Turkish vote, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh issued a reminder, presumably aimed at the Kurds, saying that it was a matter of national security and all statements should go through them.

"The Iraqi central government is the one that will deal with this threat and all the other concerned parties should understand the central government in running this crisis and they should not make separate statements," he said.

For Baghdad, the need to control the actions of the PKK is not the only aspect where relations are delicate between the central government and the regional authorities.

Control of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk is a high-stakes issue. The city is ethnically diverse and the Kurdish authorities have organised a programme of voluntary relocations for the Arab population. Turkey is also the defender of the city's Turkmens.

The exploitation of northern Iraq's plentiful oil resources has also provoked tensions with the central administration. Baghdad has rapped the knuckles of Kurdish leaders for authorising a series of deals with foreign companies without consultation.

jch/ag/db

10/18/2007 01:42 GMT

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