While the Bush administration struggles to stabilize Baghdad, a major new threat is emerging in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. If it isn’t defused, this crisis could further erode US goals in Iraq – drawing foreign military intervention, splintering the country further apart and undermining American hopes for long-term military bases in Kurdistan. The core issue is Kurdish nationalism, which worries Iraq’s powerful northern neighbor, Turkey, a country with a substantial Kurdish minority. The Bush administration has tried to finesse the problem, hoping to keep two friends happy: The Kurds have been the United States’ most reliable partner in Iraq, while the Turks are a crucial ally in the region. But in recent weeks, this strategy has been breaking down. As with so many aspects of Iraq, the Bush administration has wandered into a conflict that is encrusted with centuries of ethnic hatred. Iraqi Kurds push their politicians toward defiant assertions of independence; Turks are demanding that their leaders move to crush the Kurdish upstarts. Meanwhile, American public opinion is increasingly fed up with the fractious mess of Iraq, and wants US troops home yesterday. The administration, realizing that it was drifting toward a confrontation over the Kurdish issue, last year appointed retired Air Force General Joseph Ralston as a special emissary. His mission is to urge the Iraqis to crack down on the militant Kurdish Workers Party, known as the PKK, which uses Iraqi Kurdistan as a staging point. The Turks denounce the PKK as a terrorist group and threaten that if the US doesn’t take decisive action to suppress it, the Turkish military will. Ralston is said to have warned top administration officials last December that the Turks might invade by the end of April unless the US contained the PKK. Other knowledgeable officials are similarly worried, and one analyst has predicted that the Turks may seize a border strip about eight miles deep into Iraq. Ralston has tried his best to defuse the crisis, clearing a Kurdish refugee camp of suspected PKK members and talking regularly with both sides. But the time bomb continues to tick. A flashpoint is the city of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city claimed by the Kurds, which the Turks regard as a special protectorate because of its large Turkmen population. The new Iraqi Constitution calls for a referendum by December on the city’s future, and the Kurds are confident they will win the vote. The Turks, fearing the same outcome, want the referendum delayed. The Bush administration seems to favor a delay but hasn’t said so publicly, to avoid angering the Kurds and undermining the Constitution. Turks and Kurds have fired heavy rhetorical barrages the past few weeks. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani warned that if the Turks meddled in Kirkuk, “then we will take action for the 30 million Kurds in Turkey. The head of the Turkish general staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, responded that “from an exclusively military point of view, he favored an invasion of Iraq to clean out PKK havens. If the Turks do attack, counters one Kurdish official, “their own border will not be respected. They will not be the only ones to choose the battlefield. A wild card in the Kurdish problem is Iran. Like the Turks, the Iranians have a restless Kurdish minority and would be tempted to intervene militarily against a militant group called PJAK that operates out of Iraqi Kurdistan. Indeed, top Iranian military officers met in Ankara recently for discussions with the Turkish general staff about possible military contingencies in Iraq, according to one US official. Kurdish sources report that the Iranians have recently shelled Kurdish targets inside Iraq, and that Iranian-backed Islamic groups have attacked border posts in northern Iraq. The Iranians want to destabilize Kurdistan, partly in an effort to damage America’s wider policy aims in Iraq, Kurdish officials argue. Adding to this toxic brew is growing tension between the US and Kurdish leaders. The Kurds were furious when they weren’t given prior notice about a US special forces raid in January that attempted to snatch two top Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers at Irbil airport. Unwitting Kurdish Peshmerga troops at the airport nearly opened fire on the Americans. Although the airport raid was a failure, US forces did manage to grab five Revolutionary Guards at an Iranian consular office, which embarrassed the Kurdish leadership. The Kurds feel their friendship with America has been taken for granted. Iraqi Kurdistan has been a success story, one of the very few since the US invasion four years ago. But its status as a safe haven and future American base against Iran and Al-Qaeda is in jeopardy. Of bad news in Iraq, it seems, there is no end.
Syndicated columnistDavid Ignatius is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.