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Turkey, Kurds Ponder U.S. Withdrawal From Iraq
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Turkey, Kurds Ponder U.S. Withdrawal From Iraq

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Turkey, Kurds Ponder U.S. Withdrawal From Iraq

Turkey, Kurds Ponder U.S. Withdrawal From Iraq
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Next year's planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq has injected a new urgency into some long-running disputes in the area. Turkey, for instance, is working hard to reach new understandings with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq, and with the central government in Baghdad. The diplomatic shift is raising both hopes and fears within Turkey's Kurdish community.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Another country with a war on its borders is Turkey, which is a neighbor of Iraq. Turkey is working hard to reach a new understanding with Iraq and also with one of Iraq's regional governments - in particular Kurdistan. The diplomatic shift is raising both hopes and fears within Turkey's own Kurdish community. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON: The animosity between Turkey and Kurdish nationalists has deep roots. Turkish border guards routinely confiscate maps or books that use the term Kurdistan in reference to the homeland many Kurds believe is rightfully theirs, but which is now divided among Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Turkey keeps a significant troop presence on the Iraq border and has launched cross-border strikes against the PKK - the militant wing of the Kurdish Workers Party, which has been fighting a guerrilla campaign for a quarter century.

Recently the Turks have reached agreement with the Iraqi government in Baghdad to cooperate on counterterrorism issues, including the PKK. This is a major improvement over 2003, when Turkey's opposition to the American-led invasion of Iraq strained ties severely. The Turks refused to recognize the autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq, and the Americans weren't inclined to share intelligence on PKK movements and attack plans.

But that has changed, and retired ambassador Faruk Logoglu says the Kurds in Iraq are suddenly more willing to talk about reigning in the PKK.

Mr. FARUK LOGOGLU (Retired Ambassador): Now, there have been vacillations in the position of the Iraqi Kurds regarding this issue. But with the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, the best friend of the Iraqi Kurds will be Turkey. They really have to make a fundamental choice. It's either Turkey or the PKK terrorist organization.

KENYON: It is, of course, more complicated than that for both sides. Iraqi Kurds are also engaged in a potentially explosive power struggle with the central government in Baghdad. Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been deployed in disputed territories south of the so-called green line that denotes the Kurdish-controlled north. The area has a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christians, and others, and the stakes are especially high in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Biodere Koach(ph) at the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies says the American approach to this dispute may be critical.

Mr. BIODERE KOACH (Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies): My fears about Turkey is that Iraqi Kurds may think after Americans are gone our marginal bargain will be much smaller; maybe we should provoke some kind of crisis before Americans leave, when we are still - have some cards to play.

KENYON: That type of scenario also worries Joost Hiltermann at the International Crisis Group.

Mr. JOOST HILTERMANN (International Crisis Group): It's a very dangerous period right now. Either side, or third party spoilers, could make trouble in Kirkuk that could easy spin out of control. Now the U.S. government has put an extra brigade into Kirkuk expressly to deal with this kind of eventuality, because they see the tensions going up. I think the Americans want to be neutral in this, but the risks are great because the stakes are so high.

KENYON: Turkey's ruling AK Party has also made an effort to reach out to Kurds at home, including the opening of a Kurdish language TV station and the run-up to recent local elections. But Kurdish voters were unmoved, giving more seats to Kurdish parties than some analysts expected.

At the Istanbul offices of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, provincial chairman Halil Aksoy says it's no doubt hard for outsiders to understand how passionately Turkish Kurds feel about their rights.

Mr. HALIL AKSOY (Democratic Society Party): (Through translator) Why did the PKK take up arms? Well, think about it. What would you do if you couldn't speak your language, if you couldn't have your own school, if you couldn't sing your songs or dance your traditional dances, and if you did you would end up in prison? What would you do?

KENYON: Aksoy says Turkey should engage with the PKK, but for now Ankara seems to be taking its cue from the Obama administration, which may be willing to talk with Syria or Iran but not with the militant groups they support, such as Hezbollah or Hamas. On the other hand, Kurdish analysts say President Obama's visit to Turkey made one thing clear: if Turkey wants to be a regional player, it must find both a local and regional solution to the Kurdish problem.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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