Heads of the two Kurdish factions allied with the United States in the looming attack on Iraq have made an unprecedented appeal to President Bush to protect them from another potential antagonist: NATO ally Turkey.
The administration has received entreaties about the need for protection from Turkey in the past, but this is the first in writing and the Kurds have labeled it "urgent."
The Turkish government has announced plans to enter northern Iraq to carve out a "security belt" for the protection of war refugees. The appeal to the White House came 10 days ago in the form of a letter, a copy of which has been reviewed by ABCNEWS.
The letter says many Kurds fear that "Turkey's real agenda" in wanting to send troops into Kurdistan, an autonomous area in northern Iraq, "is to crush [our] experiment in democratic self-government."
The letter contains a blunt warning as the United States prepares to use Turkey a base to launch attacks on the Baghdad government: "Should Turkish military forces come in contact with Kurdish populations," the letter declares, "there is a real risk of clashes."
Describing the Kurds as "a loyal partner" of the United States, Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan request a formal "memorandum of understanding" that would guarantee "non-intervention by all Iraq's neighbor[s]" and commit the United States in writing to Kurdish concerns for "a federal and democratic Iraq."
Outnumbered by Turkey
Turkey's threatened incursion could complicate U.S. war efforts and might trigger a wider regional involvement in northern Iraq. ABCNEWS has learned that Iran sent a delegation to Kurdistan earlier this month, probing potential interest in Iranian military assistance if Turkey makes good its threat to intervene in the area.
The Kurds, whose population in the countries of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria is estimated at 30 million, have no state of their own. Iraqi Kurds, landlocked with no airport facilities, have had a history of shifting alliances with neighboring countries.
In 1996, during the Kurdish civil war, the PUK accepted Iranian assistance when its then-nemesis, the KDP, received military aid from Baghdad. During a brief alliance with Turkish separatists in 1997, the Turkish army came to the aid of the KDP, killing hundreds of PUK fighters in aerial bombardments. PUK sources say that while the current crisis with Turkey appears to be escalating, no requests for outside aid have been made.
Due to its proximity to the Turkish border, the brunt of any incursion by the Turks would be borne in northern Iraq, at least initially, by the KDP.
Turkish officials say that they may deploy two Turkish soldiers for every American one in northern Iraq, potentially a total of 80,000 Turkish troops. According to published reports, the Turkish army plans to penetrate 150 miles into Iraq, half way to Baghdad. The Turks have refused the U.S. request to put their forces under American command.
There is a bloody history between Turkey and its Kurdish separatist rebels, the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, for years. In the early '90s, Turkish forces even moved into northern Iraq in pursuit of them, but Kurds in northern Iraq cooperated with them. Turkey's troubles with the PKK largely ended in 1999, after PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan was captured and imprisoned.
In return for the requested "memorandum of understanding," the letter to President Bush promises "to support the territorial integrity of Iraq," and "not to engaged [sic] in unilateral military action for territorial gains."
The issue of territorial gains heads the list of frequently stated Turkish concerns that Iraqi Kurds secretly plan to establish an independent state, with the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as its capital.
Kirkuk, a city of more than a million, has a large Kurdish population, as well as smaller communities of Turkomans and Assyrian Christians.
An estimated 100,000 Kurds have been displaced from Kirkuk under the Iraqi regime's "Arabization" program; many live in refugee camps in northern Iraq.
Without their right of return, according to the letter to the president, "there will be no reconciliation in Iraq." Meanwhile, Turkey has threatened to capture Kirkuk "to protect the Turkomans," if Kurdish forces try to enter the city with the return of the displaced peoples.
Possible Powder Keg Developing
The seeming impasse is one indication of a host of feared conflicts awaiting American attention in Iraq.
For their part, the Kurds have begun to voice concerns that the Bush administration, in an effort to persuade Ankara to allow the U.S military the use of Turkish soil, may have given the Turkish army a green light to invade northern Iraq.
Kurdish leaders here have been visibly shaken in the past few days by rumors that a primary objective of the Turkish incursion would be "to disarm the Kurds."
Barham Salih, the PUK prime minister, told ABCNEWS, "The Kurds will not give up their arms — Turkey should not invade." The normally conciliatory Salih was blunt in venting his frustration. "Saddam Hussein failed to disarm us; we are freedom fighters and we will defend our hard-won gains," he said.
Last spring, KDP chief Massoud Barzani told ABCNEWS that his estimated 45,000 peshmerga — "those who face death" would fight Turkish troops if they entered his territory.
The war of words reached a climax during the summer when the KDP party newspaper warned Ankara that the contemplated incursion into Kurdistan would result in "a Turkish graveyard." In reality, the lightly armed Kurds would be no match for the modern, U.S.-equipped Turks, who have 600,000 troops, the second most powerful army in NATO.
Despite a long history of hostility, the angry rhetoric between the Kurds and the Turks had cooled down over the last year. Until just recently, it appeared that both parties might find a way to cooperate as U.S. allies in a potential attack on Iraq.
The new military threat raises the possibility that American soldiers on the northern front could be caught in the middle of a Turkish Kurdish shooting war just when they are engaging the Iraqi army.
No Protection From Weapons of Mass Destruction
As the prospect of a U.S. attack on Iraq increases, the Kurds are stockpiling food and drinking water. The lines at the gas pumps in the cities are lengthening. The Red Cross is preparing tents for evacuees in the mountains.
Already, refugees are streaming out of Kurdish villages near the strongholds of Ansar al-Islam, the guerrillas the Bush administration says are linked to al Qaeda. These villages, situated in the Surren Mountains in southeastern Kurdistan, are thought to be likely targets for early U.S. airstrikes, even before the start of the probable offensive on Iraq.
About 3.5 million people live in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. Unlike the populations of Kuwait or Israel, the Kurds have no protection against the threat of weapons of mass destruction if Iraq is attacked and decides to retaliate against nearby Kurdistan. With the possibility of war on Iraq as near as two weeks away, the tone from the leaders of the Kurds is increasingly plaintive.
In the letter to President Bush, the Kurdish leaders say they "have yet to receive any of the protective equipment promised by your officials to deal with the very real risk of chemical or biological weapons attack on the cities of Iraqi Kurdistan."
The written appeal is dated Feb. 13, 2003. Thus far, the Kurds say, there has been no reply from the White House.