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March 10, 2003

The Turks

Today in Erbil 300 schoolchildren protested against Turkey. As anyone who follows Kurdistan knows, the biggest news here for the past couple of weeks has been the possibility that Turkish troops may come into Kurdistan. Nothing is decided, but the Turks are apparently asking the US, in return for letting American troops base on Turkish soil, to allow them to come into Kurdistan. This has caused widespread indignation. Besides the children’s protest there have been women’s protests, student protests and something that was supposed to be a naked protest, though I’m pretty sure that was a translation error, on the main border crossing between Kurdistan and Turkey.

This sentiment appears to be genuine, people really don’t like the Turks here. But it’s also heavily encouraged by the government.

You may have read articles about this – now that there are hundreds of foreign journalists waiting for the war, we’re desperately trying to find news. But there’s one thing to remember: The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is now bellyaching so much about the Turks, invited Turkish troops during the civil war to help fight the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). And after the war a Turkish-led Peace Monitoring Force kept the two sides from fighting. And all of this happened without the Turks doing anything untoward. Now the KDP doesn’t want them here and it’s getting everyone agitated.

This brings up the remarkable phenomenon of Kurdish public opinion. You only have to interview one man on the street to find out what every Kurdish person thinks. There is very little independent thought here. Any KDP official, from the president to the lowest local party hack, has the phrase “democratic, federal Iraq” on the tip of his tongue. But I didn’t realize the full extent of this unanimity until I interviewed a 12-year-old boy in the border village of Kalak. I asked what he thought about the war, and he said it was a good thing because it would result in a democratic, federal Iraq. I found the similar phenomenon in the Balkans, it’s at least in part because they have faced an external threat for so long that they have surrendered their power of dissent to their leaders. (This could be happening in America too, alas.) The few people I’ve met here who are marginally independent thinkers tell me that if the KDP didn’t want people to be angry about the Turks, they wouldn’t be. And now the schoolchildren of Erbil are being indoctrinated, as well.

All that is not to say that the Turks’ intentions are honorable. They apparently have no interest in fighting Saddam’s forces, just in coming to northern Iraq and camping out, which is not really being part of the team. There are more than a thousand Turkish troops already here, who came to fight the PKK during the mid-1990s and who the Kurds don’t want but can’t make leave. The Peace Monitoring Force’s mandate expired in 1998 and they won’t leave, either.

Anyway, the Turks’ main reasons for wanting to put troops in Kurdistan seem to be: 1. they fear the Kurds will declare independence and they want to stop that, fearing that it may encourage their Kurds to do the same 2. they fear that the Turkomans (an ethnic minority, who are basically Turks and number about three million in Iraq) will be attacked by Kurds or 3. they fear that Kurds may rush to Kirkuk, which Turks claim is historically Turkish/Turkoman, and seize the significant oilfields there.

The first is fairly unreasonable, as no one in the world would recognize an independent Kurdistan and it would likely be attacked by Turkey and Iran. Kurds, when they’re being honest, will tell you that they dream of an independent Kurdistan but that now is not the time.

The second and the third seemed unlikely before this brouhaha started, but perversely the threat of Turkish invasion has increased the chances that either Turkomans (Turkomen?) will be attacked or that Kurds will seize Kirkuk, precisely because Kurds now trust the Turks less than ever. In this atmosphere of suspicion a small incident could escalate quickly. People suspect that Turkomans, in particular their biggest political coalition, the Turkoman Front, are agents of the Turkish government trying to destabilize Kurdistan. And in the chaos of war, it’s possible that a Turkoman threat may be imagined and that people would retaliate. And also, if a rumor starts that the Turkish army is moving towards Kirkuk, Kurds may do the same en masse, which would in turn prompt the Turks to really move to Kirkuk, and then it would get messy.

In the end I don’t expect any of this to pass. If there is a significant American presence here that will dampen anyone’s plans to cause trouble. And even if there isn’t, I don’t imagine that Turkey would be so stupid as to muck up their biggest ally’s war. But keep an eye on this area anyway.

March 10, 2003 in Kurds, Politics, Turkey | Permalink


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Tracked on Mar 10, 2003 11:01:25 PM


BTW, I did hear yesterday (Monday, March 10, I think) that Iraq was spotted from the air (uh, this would be US intelligence) putting explosives around the oil wells in Kirkuk. I did a Headline ticker on it. I wonder if that would deter any rush to Kirkuk such as you describe above.


Posted by: Chris | Mar 12, 2003 2:47:06 AM

Well, the rush to Kirkuk will be by Kurds and Turkomans who were expelled from their homes there to make room for Arab settlers. Maybe they will be deterred if there are massive oil fires along the way, but the oil is not their first concern; going home is.

And as this is wartime we have to be skeptical about what "intelligence" the government gives us. Maybe it's true; it's certainly not impossible. But it seems to be against Saddam Hussein's goals in this conflict, which, as some wonk whose name I now forget, said were to make "Arab schoolchildren write poetry about him for 1,000 years."

Posted by: Josh | Mar 12, 2003 11:38:02 AM

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