Old Roots to Ankara's Iraq Policy ; Turkey Says a Flood of Kurdish Refugees from Northern Iraq Would Justify a Military Incursion

By Ilene R. Prusher Writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Old Roots to Ankara's Iraq Policy ; Turkey Says a Flood of Kurdish Refugees from Northern Iraq Would Justify a Military Incursion


Ilene R. Prusher Writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


To understand Turkey's vote supporting its right to send troops to northern Iraq, look no further than Kirkuk and Mosul, two oil- rich cities that tell the story of Turkey's own manifest destiny. It's a tale that continues to develop today, driving Turkish policy on Iraq and further straining relations between Ankara and Washington.

Since the controversial parliamentary vote late last week, the US has been trying to dissuade Turkey from entering Iraq unilaterally. Yesterday, Ankara announced that Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq had not advanced toward the Turkish border, which Turkey says would justify a military deployment.

Iraqi-held Kirkuk and Mosul - which Kurdish, Turkish, and American forces could home in on in coming days - have long sat like Turkey's unrealized hinterlands. According to Turkish history books, European powers, engaged in a duplicitous "Great Game" at the end of World War I to carve up the Middle East, deprived the crumbling Ottoman Empire of Kirkuk and Mosul - regions founding father Kemal Ataturk saw as belonging, without question, to the nascent Republic of Turkey. As compensation for their loss, Turkey was promised some 10 percent of the oil revenues of Iraq. The money came "in fits and starts," says Ankara University professor Dogu Ergil, and after 13 years, it stopped coming all together. A line item for the Iraqi oil revenue still appears in Turkey's national budget each year - next to it, a blank space.

"It is in the public conscience, no matter what anyone says, that those areas are meant to be within Turkey's borders," says Ahmet K. Han, a political economist at Istanbul Bilgi University. "Turkish students learn that Mosul and Kirkuk were intended to be part of the natural borders of Turkey, in the misak-i milli," he adds, using the Ottoman Turkish term for Ataturk's vision of Turkey's boundaries as agreed upon in the country's founding National Pact.

To be sure, few Turks today talk about the misak-i milli. But most here hold as sacred the tenet that Turkey can and must prevent Iraqi Kurds - many of whom were forced out of Mosul and Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein - from gaining control of the cities. With their own oil, Turkish officials argue, Kurds could make a Kurdish state economically viable. In Turkish minds, that would spell the end of Turkey's borders because it would prompt Kurds in southeastern Turkey - around 20 percent of the country's population - to fight to join a new Kurdistan.

The very concept of a far-away superpower enforcing new ideas of "regime change" digs up old resentments at having been swindled out of lucrative territory Turkey saw as its natural soil.

But for those with a shorter view of history, the last US-led war against Iraq triggered many of Turkey's current economic and political problems. The 1991 Gulf War ended normal trade relations between Iraq and Turkey. The war also closed down an oil pipeline from Kirkuk to Ceyhan, Turkey, causing Turkey to lose revenue it collected from transporting the oil to the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey also blames the first Gulf War's flood of refugees for allowing thousands of guerrillas in the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) to slip into Turkey, heating up a violent separatist war.

The pipeline was repaired in 1996. After years of sanctions, Iraq was allowed to sell some of its oil under the United Nations- administered oil-for-food program. …

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