We Are Your Friends, but Hands off Iraq’s Kurds

Cool wariness marked the initial greeting Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul received this week in Jerusalem. Israeli officials were laboring under the impression of information received that prime minister Tayyip Erdogan had been persuaded by Syrian president Bashar Assad when they met in Damascus in the last week of December to help the Syrians blacken Israel for spurning his peace feelers. They believed Erdogan had adopted this line as a means of currying favor with the European Union.

Gul’s hosts therefore expected his visit to prepare the ground for an anti-Israel campaign. However, the visitor surprised them.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Jerusalem report that Gul carried no messages from the Syrian leader and made no attempt to wrong-foot Israel. The Ankara government in fact is certain that Assad, behind his public utterances, has no real interest in talks with Israel and advises Jerusalem to ignore him.

Gul’s errand was quite different. He came to ask the Israeli government to coordinate with Ankara any steps it might take with regard to Iraq’s Kurds.

This request reminded Israeli officials of their earlier suspicions that Gul himself leaked to the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh the false claim of a major Israeli intelligence operation among the Kurdish community, contrary to Washington-Ankara understandings (as first reported in DNW 163 on June 25, 2004).

This time, the foreign minister spoke frankly of Turkish concerns. After the January 30 election in Iraq, whatever the result, they were sure the Kurds will go full speed ahead with their drive for maximum autonomy. Erdogan conveyed a request to prime minister Ariel Sharon to refrain from aiding the Kurds to achieve their ambition. In particular, Israeli intelligence was asked not to abet any Kurdish actions to assume control of the two oil towns of Kirkuk and Mosul.

In this regard, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources reveal that 10-12,000 Kurdish fighting men are already ensconced in the Kurdish districts of Mosul and more are building up. This is the result of the failed negotiations that went on all this week with the Americans and Iraqi government on the orderly deployment of Kurdish battalions in the city.


Americans also hold Kurds on a leash


In those talks, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani warned US commander in northern Iraq, Brig.-Gen. Carter Ham and Mosul’s Iraqi governor Rayed Kashmula that without a Kurdish military presence, Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists would raid the Kurdish neighborhoods and the security situation in the entire region would zoom out of control. The US commander and Iraqi official replied that large-scale Kurdish units turning up in Mosul would become a red flag for igniting civil warfare in the entire region.

Nonetheless, Kurdish units did enter the city. Consequently, on Saturday, January 1, the US rushed 6,000-8,000 elite 82nd Airborne Division troops to Mosul.

The American troops now have their hands full both securing the third largest city in Iraqi against terrorist action and blocking the exits of the Kurdish districts to prevent Kurdish forces from percolating into other parts of the town.

Gul explained to Israeli officials that Ankara, like most other Middle East governments, is deeply concerned by the twin prospects of a Shiite-dominated regime rising in Baghdad and an increasingly empowered Kurdish community. Most have their own secessionist Kurdish minorities. The Erdogan government’s preferred formula would be creation of a weak Kurdish self-governing province, provided it was not the absolute client either of Washington or Tehran. In other words, an acceptable Kurdish entity must also be receptive to Turkish interests.

Sources present at the Gul-Sharon encounter summed up the Turkish position thus: Israel must step aside in Iraqi Kurdistan in favor of the Turkish interest and also help Ankara promote this interest in Washington.

When Sharon made no comment, Gul explained why Jerusalem should be forthcoming on this issue.

1. Neither Washington nor Jerusalem has anything to fear from the intense Turkish interchanges with Tehran and Damascus. They will not generate any important changes in Ankara’s policy positions.

2. The existing pro-American pact between Turkey, Israel and Jordan remains in place as a key bulwark of Turkish foreign policy.

3. Turkey is still a long way from entering the European Union. Even when it does, Ankara has no intention of falling in behind the anti-American, anti-Israel lead of the EU’s foreign relations czars Javier Solana and Chris Paten.

4. Prime minister Erdogan will soon pay an official visit to Israel.

5. When the Hizballah came up in his Damascus talks with Assad, Erdogan said: “You may think you are raising a lion cub, but you are in fact breeding a monster. By the time you have a change of heart on the Hizballah, you will find it is too late.”

Sharon decided to give the Turkish message careful thought before responding.

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