The potential for Iraqi Kurdistan to be the flashpoint for a wider regional conflict is becoming increasingly clear. On March 1, a former member of the Turkish National Security Council (MGK) weighed in on the brewing crisis in Kirkuk, which is coveted as a capital by Iraq’s Kurdish regional government. Former MGK Secretary-General Gen. Tuncer Kilinc said Turkey ceded the Kirkuk region to a united Iraq in the 1920s, and if Iraq is divided then Turkey has territorial rights there.
Said Kilinc: “There is the 1926 Ankara Treaty. This secures Turkey’s rights. When Turkey left this land to British forces, the treaty was made for one Iraq. Although according to the Misak-i Milli [National Oath, 1920 parliament vote establishing Turkish borders] those lands were ours, we left them to a united Iraq. We still want to see one Iraq, but if it’s separated we have rights to this land under international agreements.”
Kilinc explicitly invoked a Turkish national claim to northern Iraq. “It is not the territory of others. It is a neighboring area which closely concerns Turkey. If a fire breaks out there it will definitely effect us.”
Kilinc also spoke in support of comments by Chief of Staff head Gen. Yasar Buyukanit against Turkish leaders meeting Iraqi Kurdish officials. “Buyukanit’s remarks are logical,” he said. “If the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] causes us troubles, Massoud Barzani isn’t the person to speak to, or he shouldn’t be… Until now we only spoke of unity in Iraq, and this describes our red line.”
Finally, Kilinc attacked growing Kurdish cultural rights within Turkey. “In our nation-state, one language is spoken and this was also specified in our Constitution… Until now all ethnic groups in Turkey used their language while talking without any problem.” But now things are getting too loose, in Kilinc’s view. “We let them speak and sing in their own language. Now they ask for their own education in Kurdish. This is the first step towards separation and we can’t let this happen. Our nation has only one flag, one country and one language.” (The New Anatolian, March 2 via Turkish Weekly)
Kilinc isn’t the only one who thinks things are getting too loose. Turkish state prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into ex-president Kenan Evren over his call for decentralizing power. Evren told the Sabah newspaper this week he favored giving more powers to the provinces, and dismissed fears this would embolden Turkey’s Kurds to push for independence: “They keep saying Turkey’s Kurds would declare independence. They would not. Why would they want to secede if they are given the same rights? We must treat the Kurds as brothers.” Evren may face criminal charges of undermining national unity for this statement.
Evren, leader of a 1980 military coup, once denied the very existence of Kurds in Turkey, describing them as “mountain Turks” whose name came from the noise their boots made when walking in the snow. After the coup, he restricted the use of the Kurdish language. (Reuters, March 2)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was also drawn into the conflict after the Turkish government took her to task over using the word “Kurdistan.” Speaking before the Senate Appropriations Committee Feb. 27, Rice at referred to the PKK as a terrorist group that was “operating on the border between Turkey and Kurdistan.” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in nationally broadcast comments, called her description of the region “wrong,” adding that Turkey would pass “necessary messages” to the US authorities.
Questioned about Rice’s words at a press conference, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the US “fully supports the territorial integrity of Iraq.” Iraq is made up of regional governorates, and the local governments in the north refer to themselves as the “Kurdistan Regional Government,” McCormack said, emphasizing that they are all units of Iraq’s federal system. Pressed by a reporter as to whether Rice was referring to a geographical region, he said, “Correct, yes: the border between Iraq and Turkey.” (Zaman, March 2 via Kurdish Media)
Meanwhile, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported Feb. 24 that Revolutionary Guard units engaged Kurdish guerillas in the country’s West Azarbaijan province, as the insurgents apparently sought to flee across the Iraqi border. According to IRNA, “The Revolutionary Guards besieged these elements and started neutralizing them. In this operation at least 17 mercenary anti-revolution elements were killed and some were injured.”
The Kurdish news agency Firat reported that militants from the Party for the Free Life of Kurdistan (PEJAK) claimed to have shot down an Iranian military helicopter with a shoulder-launched missile Feb. 24, killing eight soldiers and capturing one. Iranian authorities confirmed that a helicopter had gone down in the region, with one pilot “martyred” in the crash, but claimed it was caused by bad weather.
In December, Iranian officials reported the capture of 87 members and supporters of “terrorist groups” in West Azarbaijan, saying security forces had killed nine militants in recent months. PEJAK is said to be an Iranian offshoot of the PKK, which launched an insurgency against Turkey in 1984. PEJAK claims to have several thousand men and women under arms in Iran’s Qandil Mountains stronghold. Last May, Iran retaliated to PEJAK attacks by shelling Kurdish villages in northern Iraq. (ISN Security Watch, Feb. 26)
Iran also faces a growing ethnic insurgency on the other side of the country in Baluchistan.
Western oil companies also have growing interests in Iraqi Kurdistan. Western Zagros Ltd., a subsidiary of Canada’s Western Oil Sands Inc., announced March 2 that its Exploration and Production Sharing Agreement (EPSA) has been ratified by the Kurdistan Regional Government and confirmed by what the press release called “His Excellency Nerchivan Barzani, Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan.” The final EPSA grants exploration rights in 2,120 square kilometers and “holds a number of high potential prospects.” (CNW Telbec, Canada, March 2)
The US is obviously torn between schemes to dismantle Iraq as an inevitable move to end the war (or, for the necons, as part of a general plan to balkanize the Middle East), and fears that this could cause the conflict—and the Kurdish region—to spin out of control. We have noted how the oil law now pending in Baghdad grants greater corporate access, while the way royalties are apportioned in the 2005 constitution inherently fuels regional rivalries.