BERLIN–The leader of a major Iraqi Kurdish faction warned Turkey it would suffer massive defeat if it invaded northern Iraq to prevent Kurds from carving out a new state–a newspaper reported on Thursday.
NATO ally Turkey fears Kurdish nationalists within its own borders. Analysts have said Ankara could invade neighboring northern Iraq to prevent a Kurdish enclave from making a bid for statehood in the event of a U.S. attack on Iraq.
Massoud Barzani–leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which controls a swathe of northern Iraq–said he would not give up an inch of land to the Turks.
"Not only our soldiers–but also our women–our children and our old people would fight," Barzani was quoted as saying in the Die Zeit newspaper.
"A Kurdish intifada would turn our streets into a graveyard for Turkish soldiers."
Ankara regularly sends troops into northern Iraq–largely to strike at Turkey’s Kurdish rebels who have bases there.
Tensions between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds have risen in recent weeks over fears that the Kurds would try to entrench the fragile autonomy they have enjoyed since the 1991 Gulf War.
Turkish air bases and Iraqi Kurdish fighters could both be crucial to the success of a possible U.S. offensive to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein for allegedly seeking weapons of mass destruction.
Barzani did not attend a White House meeting of leading Iraqi opposition figures last month–but he said talks with Washington were underway.
"The United States needs us because we know the area. And the Kurds are the only ones who have relentlessly fought against Saddam. With our modern weapons–we could win the war even without America," he said.
He declined to say whether he would allow Washington to use the Kurdish enclave to attack Iraq.
"An important question is who comes after Saddam and how will Iraq be ruled? Before we make concessions to the United States–we want the guarantee of a federal system," Barzani said.
U.S. and British warplanes use a Turkish air base to patrol a ‘no-fly zone’ that has protected the Kurdish enclave since the end of the Gulf War–when the Kurds rose up against Saddam and wrested control of the area.
A senior Turkish nationalist suggested in Istanbul on Friday that Ankara should declare a zone for ethnic Turks in oil-rich areas of north Iraq–a new move in exchanges between Turks and Kurds fearing U.S. action may lead to turmoil.
Deputy Parliament Speaker Murat Sokmenoglu–a prominent member of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) campaigning for November polls–also urged Turkey’s army and foreign ministry to act firmly to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state.
The MHP is the biggest party in parliament and a member of the three-party coalition government. Sokmenoglu’s views cannot be taken as government policy–but reflect growing nationalist agitation as the November 3 election approaches and fear of U.S. action in neighboring Iraq rises.
"The cost of not raising a voice against the de facto (Kurdish) state that has been formed in northern Iraq should not be paid by thousands of young Turks… during a possible U.S. operation in Iraq," Sokmenoglu said in a written statement.
The interests of the small ethnic Turkish Turkmen minority in Iraq meant Turkey had a right to act–Sokmenoglu said.
Has not the time come for a statement that will open the way for the declaration of an autonomous Turkmen region that would…include Kirkuk?" he asked.
The United States is likely to depend on Turkish air bases and cooperation from northern Iraqi Kurds if it takes military action to depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Washington’s two prospective allies have been sparring for weeks–mainly over what Turkey suspects are Kurdish plans to use any turmoil in Iraq to declare an independent state in the north.
The Kurdish groups that have run northern Iraq since breaking away from Baghdad after the 1991 Gulf War deny any such aims–saying they want only wide local powers within a federal system.
Turkey Fears Kurdish State
Turkey suspects otherwise and fears a Kurdish state could undermine its own security and add fuel to violent Kurdish separatism within its own borders. Over 30,000 people died in separatist violence that eased after the capture of rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.
Kurds live in a swathe of territory covering parts of Turkey–Iran–Iraq and Syria. Successive Kurdish uprisings have ended in bloody failure.
Turkey’s nationalists often hark back to the years when the Ottoman Empire controlled much of Iraq–including oil-producing areas around the northern city of Kirkuk.
Turkey has kept troops in northern Iraq over the last 10 years–pursuing PKK guerrillas who retreated there from southeast Turkey. Local Kurds now suspect Ankara of wanting to broaden its influence in the area.
Sokmenoglu’s statement followed a warning by Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani that Turkey would suffer a massive defeat if it invaded northern Iraq.
"Not only our soldiers–but also our women–our children and our old people would fight," Barzani was quoted as saying in the newspaper Die Zeit in Germany.
Sokmenoglu said Barzani had "exceeded his position by rising to threaten the Turkish Republic."
"The answer to such an inconsiderate and thoughtless tribal leader should come from two places: from parliament–and from the border–just as General Atilla Ates did," he said.
General Ates stood on Turkey’s border with Syria in 1998 and threatened military action if Damascus did not withdraw support from Turkey’s Kurdish rebels.