The US has promised Turkey that it will crush Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq who are fighting for an independent homeland in eastern Turkey.
Turkey is threatening to invade northern Iraq following a series of armed confrontations with Kurdish militants along the Iraq-Turkey border.
Last weekend an ambush by Kurds in the PKK guerrilla organisation left at least 12 Turkish soldiers dead.
Turkey has the second largest military in the Nato military alliance. It has massed up to 100,000 troops on the border. It rejected the PKK’s recent offer of a ceasefire out of hand.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, promised that if Turkey were to hold back from invading Iraq, the US military would take “quick steps” to crush the PKK rebels.
The US fears that any Turkish military action would undermine its allies in northern Iraq – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Both parties are key supporters of the US occupation.
The 40 million Kurds make up sizeable minorities in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq (see map). They have been campaigning for independence ever since the Middle East was carved up by Britain and France at the end of the First World War.
The Kurds form the largest single people in the world without a state of their own. Their struggle for an independent homeland has been fuelled by repeated attempts to wipe out their language and culture.
The Kurdish minority in Turkey has faced decades of oppression, including severe punishment if they were caught speaking their own language.
The PKK emerged as a military organisation in 1984 during the era of military rule in Turkey. It launched a guerrilla war that resulted in a murderous reaction by the Turkish state – 40,000 deaths, 4,000 villages destroyed and four million people driven out of their homes.
After being driven out of southern Turkey the PKK set up a series of makeshift bases in northern Iraq, where it regularly crosses over into Turkey to stage guerrilla attacks.
The organisation continues to enjoy support from the Kurds in the border region and among the Kurdish majority of south eastern Turkey.
The latest ambush has sparked a wave of anti-Kurdish attacks across Turkey and put pressure on Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, (AKP). The AKP won overwhelming support from Turkey’s Kurds in the recent elections after it eased restrictions on Kurdish language and culture. This move put the party in direct confrontation with Turkey’s powerful military.
If the Turkish army invades Iraq, the PKK fighters would melt away into the population. Any cross border attack would thus be the first step in a protracted war that would drag Turkey into an Iraqi quagmire of its own.
Tensions in the region are further complicated by attacks on Iraq’s ethnic Turkish minority – the Turkmen – by the Kurdish parties allied to the US.
At the centre of this struggle is the control over the divided oil-rich city of Kirkuk. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003 the Turkish state dusted off an old claim over the city, based on a census taken in the 1950s that showed it had a Turkmen majority.
Today Kirkuk is overwhelmingly Kurdish, though with sizeable Arab and Turkmen minorities. The Kurdish parties are pushing for a referendum on whether the city becomes part of the Kurdish autonomous region set up after the first Gulf War of 1990-91, or remains part of Iraq.
The vote could cause an ethnic civil war that would destabilise the whole of northern Iraq.
The US and Turkey have been putting pressure on the Kurdish authorities to hand over PKK leaders to Turkey.
So far Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president and head of the PUK, has refused, claiming that Iraq’s Kurdish soldiers are too busy crushing the Iraqi resistance to deal with the PKK.
He told an Arabic language newspaper, “We do not have sufficient military forces to send them to the Qandil mountains to drive the PKK out. We need our military forces to maintain security in Baghdad’s streets and to fight terrorism.”