Ethnic Violence Intensifies Turkey's Iraq Debate

Turkey is concerned about the prospect of increasing instability in northern Iraq. To promote reconstruction in the region, Turkish officials recently agreed to provide Iraqis with surplus electricity. In addition, Ankara is considering the deployment of Turkish military units in northern Iraq in the capacity of peacekeepers.

Turkish concerns over the tenuous conditions in northern Iraq have risen in recent days, fueled in large measure by rioting between Kurds and Turkomans that left at least 12 people dead in an around the northern oil hub of Kirkuk. The confrontation was touched off by an August 22 explosion at a Turkoman holy site. Turkomans blamed Kurds for the explosion.

On August 27, Iraqi Turkoman leaders and representatives of one Kurdish group – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – signed a protocol that condemned the violence. It also pledged a joint effort to determine the cause of the rioting and to prosecute those deemed responsible for starting it. In addition, the two sides indicated they would strive to establish a mechanism to promote inter-ethnic harmony in northern Iraq.

Officials in Ankara say they are closely monitoring developments. "There is a power vacuum in northern Iraq," Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek declared following an August 25 cabinet meeting.

Ankara has a standing interest in protecting the interests of the Turkoman minority in Iraq and also seeks to project its influence in northern Iraq. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Inter-ethnic tension in Iraq can have an unsettling effect on Turkey, underscored by an August 24 demonstration in front of the PUK's office in Ankara. According to reports, 23 policemen were slightly injured in skirmishes with demonstrators.
Turkish officials have suggested that Turkoman interests should enjoy greater representation in the Iraqi reconstruction process. "The Turkoman people ... have been expending great efforts to undertake an active role in the ... rebuilding process of Iraq, and to be represented effectively in the [country's] future political structure," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told the Anatolia News Agency on August 26. "Turkey supports these efforts by the Turkoman people."

While a source of concern in Ankara, the interethnic tension in northern Iraq may be helping to spur a rapprochement between Turkey and the United States. Relations between the two states have been prickly since March, when the Turkish parliament refused to grant temporary basing rights to US troops. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. However, Gul suggested that ties were improving. "There may be several difficulties," Gul was quoted as saying by the Anatolia news agency, "but bilateral relations are gradually improving at the moment, and they are at a good level."

The increasing spirit of US-Turkish cooperation was underscored by the August 25 announcement by US military officials that Turkey would help supply electricity to northern Iraq. Nevertheless, the regional security situation remains tenuous, as oil-rich Kirkuk province has been the scene of sabotage attacks on the main pipeline route into Turkey. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The damage such sabotage can do to Turkish investment and revenue has prompted leaders to revisit the idea of sending troops into Iraq to assist with peacekeeping. Gul has suggested that Turkey was considering dispatching up to 10,000 troops to assist the occupation forces.

According to local observers, many Turkish MPs remain skeptical about the idea of sending troops to Iraq. The Bush administration is no longer offering financial incentives for deployment, as it did in March, and many governments in the European Union -- which Turkey keenly wants to join – remain wary of the US-led occupation. Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said on August 25 that any troop deployment would need "international legitimacy." At the same press event, military chief General Hilmi Ozkok denied reports that military leaders are divided over whether or not to send troops, but added ambiguously that "commanders can express a view in their own fields."

Gul has said the troop deployment issue could be debated in parliament when it reconvenes in September. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Parliament will make the final decision, and opposition parties may resist the idea of deployment. Before any vote is taken on deployment, the possibility remains that ethnic tension in northern Iraq could complicate Turkey's decision-making process.

Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst.

Ethnic Violence Intensifies Turkey's Iraq Debate

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