Does Baghdad have power to crack down on PKK?

This Patrick Cockburn report is entitled “Baghdad may be unable to stop attacks by PKK fighters,” but the more relevant question may be whether the regional Kurdish government which is the real power in northern Iraq has any real desire to—or if they don’t have more sympathy for the PKK than for Turkey (or USA). From the UK Independent, Oct 24:

The Iraqi government said it would shut down operations of the Kurdish guerrillas from Turkey based on its soil in order to avert the invasion of Iraq by the Turkish Army. But it is doubtful if the Baghdad government is capable of expelling the rebels from hide-outs in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

“The PKK is a terrorist organisation and we have taken a decision to shut down their offices and not allow them to operate on Iraqi soil,” said Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, after talks with Ali Babacan, the Turkish Foreign minister, in Baghdad. Although the Turkish government is talking tough about an invasion of northern Iraq after 12 soldiers were killed and eight captured at the weekend, it is clearly reluctant to give the orders for a military attack.

An offensive would be unlikely to locate the 3,000 PKK guerrillas hidden in the mountains and would give the political initiative to the Turkish Army. It would also anger the US and the Iraqi governments.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said in London after meeting Gordon Brown that Turkey was giving diplomacy a chance. “Right now we are in a waiting stance, but Iraq should know that we can use the mandate for cross border operation at any time.”

He said that Turkey might impose sanctions on exports to Iraq, a move that would be very serious for Iraqi Kurdistan, which imports many essential commodities from Turkey. Turkish exports to Iraq were worth $2.6bn (£1.27bn) last year and there are many Turkish construction companies working in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“To this day, I have met the Iraqi central government four times,” said an impatient-sounding Mr Erdogan. “We have dwelled upon these issues very carefully. We waited for 14 months for this mechanism to bear fruit, but it did not, and we cannot wait forever.” He said he would go on consulting with the US and the Baghdad government “whether or not they have some influence in the north”.

The publication of pictures of eight captured Turkish soldiers held by the rebels is likely to raise the political temperature in Turkey. “The pictures show their health condition is pretty good,” said the Firat pro-PKK news agency based in Europe.

If there is a further PKK attack causing military casualties in the next few days then Mr Erdogan might find it impossible to avoid taking military action. Much would then depend if this is to be a symbolic move into uninhabited mountain areas or a broader offensive.

The prospects for a cross-border campaign are further complicated because the main PKK concentration is in the Qandil mountains on the Iranian border, which form a natural fortress that even Saddam Hussein’s army could not penetrate. Guerrillas would find it easy to set ambushes, or simply disappear. Air strikes would also prove ineffective since the PKK is broken up into small units.

Turkey would like the US to take part in attacks on the PKK but this would complicate America’s relationship with the Iraqi Kurds, who are the only reliable ally of the US in Iraq. Effective actions against the PKK would depend on the active participation of the forces of the Kurdistan regional government. But in the past the Iraqi Kurds have never wanted to eliminate the PKK from their territory, at the behest of Turkey. They are also suspicious that in reality Turkey is targeting the Kurds of Iraq because of their growing military and political strength.

In Baghdad, Mr Babacan also rejected an offer of a ceasefire by the PKK. The existence of the PKK goes some way to justify the size and cost of the Turkish armed forces and Iraqi Kurdish leaders see the PKK as providing an excuse for the important role of the Turkish army in politics.

See our last posts on Iraq and the struggle in Kurdistan.