May 31, 2007— -- Just when it looked like things in Iraq couldn't get worse, a new threat is emerging -- from Turkey. And it's creating a huge headache for U.S. policymakers.
Impatient at continued attacks against Turkey by the Kurdish guerilla group PKK (Kurdish Workers' Party), whose members are based mostly in northern Iraq, Turkey has moved troops and tanks close to the border with Iraq. Iraqi newspapers have expressed concerns that Turkey may be planning to cross the border in pursuit of the PKK guerrillas.
The PKK, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization, has conducted a low-level guerrilla war against Turkey since 1984.
Last week, a suicide bomber in Ankara, the capital, killed six people. The government said it was the work of the PKK. And a bomb in southeastern Turkey, where the PKK is most active, killed six Turkish soldiers.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week, "We want all acts of the terrorist organization to come to an end." When asked if Turkey would invade Iraq, Erdogan said, "One does not talk about whether these kinds of operations will take place or not, it would simply be carried out."
Some of Erdogan's rhetoric may be political posturing -- he faces an election in July and needs to appear tough on terrorism. But underneath the current tension is a bigger problem -- the growing autonomy of Iraq's 4 million Kurds.
The Turkish government fears that if Iraqi Kurdistan became quasi-independent in an otherwise disintegrating Iraq, many of the 15 to 20 million ethnic Kurds in southeastern Turkey might try to annex themselves to a newly emerging Kurdish state. Kurds are also a minority in northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria.
The Kurdish regional government in Iraq has said it does not want independence -- and says it does not support the PKK. But it continues to push for a referendum due to be held by the end of 2007 to decide whether the oil-rich city of Kirkuk should become part of the Kurdish region or remain as part of the rest of Iraq. Were the Kurds to win this referendum, Turkey would see that as a move to win economic self-sufficiency and hence independence on the part of the Kurds.
The problem for the United States is that both Turkey and the Kurds are close U.S. allies. Turkey is a NATO member, and the Kurdish part of Iraq is the only peaceful area in the country and very pro-American. Border fighting between Turkey and Kurdish Iraq is the last thing the United States wants now as it struggles to pacify the rest of the country.
U.S. officials told ABC News there has been strong lobbying behind the scenes as the Turks and the Kurds try to calm tensions. This is one problem the United States doesn't need.