After Turkish Airstrikes, Rice Visits Kirkuk

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Kirkuk in northern Iraq on Tuesday. On Sunday, Turkey conducted airstrikes in northern Iraq against the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, rebels. Michael Rubin, resident fellow at The American Enterprise Institute, discusses Turkey's actions.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Kirkuk in northern Iraq today. But the president of Iraqi Kurdistan refused to meet her. Kurdistan is by far the quietest and the most pro-American part of Iraq. But Massoud Barzani was protesting Turkish air and ground attacks inside Iraq. Attacks, he said, could not have happened without American knowledge.

Indeed, the Washington Post reports today that the U.S. provided Turkey with intelligence so they could target bases of the PKK, the rebel Kurdish group that stages attacks on Kurdish forces from bases in northern Iraq.

Joining us now here in Studio 3A is Michael Rubin, a resident fellow at The American Enterprise Institute, a frequent visitor to Iraqi Kurdistan. Nice to have you back in the program today.

Mr. MICHAEL RUBIN (Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute): Thanks for having me back.

CONAN: Turkey has, for weeks now, have been threatening large scale attacks across the border. There had been some airstrikes, some artillery fire today. Ground troops reportedly went about a mile and half inside of Iraqi Kurdistan then withdrew. What's going on here?

Mr. RUBIN: Well, this is actually a problem which has been boiling up for about five years now. The PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, is a terrorist group or freedom fighters depending on one's perspective. They waged an insurgency in Turkey from 1984 to 1997 that took about 30,000 lives.

Now, over the course of the last two months, there has been an escalation of attacks inside Turkey. And so when I was last in Turkey during the last big attack on October 21st, it actually reminded me of New York or Washington after 9/11 with Turkish flags everywhere. I think Turkish flag sales went up 700 percent. And this has also been an election year in Turkey. So this has amplified the feeling that this diplomatic situation, this struggle with the PKK and its safe havens in northern Iraq has gone on long enough.

CONAN: And the United States has allies on both sides of this. United States regards the PKK as a terrorist organization, but NATO-ally Turkey says you have intelligence; you've got a lot of people on the ground, a lot of information about what's going on in Iraqi Kurdistan, why didn't you tell us what's going on? And the Iraqi Kurds say, wait a minute, these are Kurds, too. They share many of the same goals that we do - the same language, the same culture. You can't be asking Turkey to attack us. What's the United States do?

Mr. RUBIN: Well, you're absolutely right. And one of the major diplomatic problems is both the Iraqi Kurds and the Turks look at relations as a zero sum game. You're either with us or against us. And whenever I go to Iraqi Kurdistan or whenever I go to Turkey, I say, hey, look, the United States, for example, is friendly with Israel, we're also friendly with Saudi Arabia, and we don't let Riyadh and we don't let Tel Aviv tell us to not be friendly with the others.

Now, when it comes to the problem in Iraqi Kurdistan, though, it's actually been compounded by the fact that perhaps Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, doesn't fully understand the position in which the United States has been put in.

In June, the Pew Global Attitudes survey determined that the United States and Americans only have respectively an 8 and 11 percent favorable rating in Turkey. That made Turkey the most anti-American country in the world. And talking to Turkish journalists, talking to Turkish politicians and so forth, everyone is united in saying it's because people don't believe that the United States is doing enough about this terrorist group that's targeting Turkey.

Now, Massoud Barzani is playing into a couple of different factors. On one hand, he is rather isolated. He surrounds himself by advisers who tell him what he wants to hear, and he may have been genuinely surprised by which way the United States came down. There's a tendency in the Kurdish media to say - and among Kurdistan Democratic Party politicians to say either you're 100 percent for us or you're an enemy. And that's just diplomatically an immature strategy.

On the other hand, when we talk about Massoud Barzani boycotting Condoleezza Rice today, part of this is just the nature of Iraqi politics. That the squeaky wheel has, over the last few years, got in the grease. Whoever boycotts the secretary of state - whether it's the Kurdish parties, whether it's the Sunni parties or whether it's a Shia parties - gets rewarded by a reassessment of strategy and usually a moderation of the U.S. position.

CONAN: Hmm. Interestingly, the Kurdish ground attack was into an area - Dahuk province. That is very much Barzani country. This is in his area. These are his supporters.

Mr. RUBIN: Well, exactly. And you always have to look at Kurdish politics against the context of the competition between Massoud Barzani, the leader -the president of Iraqi Kurdistan and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Jalal Talabani, who on one hand is now the president of Iraq, but on the other hand is also the leader of his - of Barzani's chief competitor, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. They talk about being unified, they're not.

But the main issue is Talabani will always be more moderate than Barzani because Barzani shares the entire border with Turkey. Talabani doesn't. Talabani borders with Iran. So when it comes to Turkish troops coming in, no matter where they come in, they're going to be coming into Massoud Barzani's territory.

CONAN: Is it also possible that the United States - by giving Turkey information on where these bases were, where to target their airstrikes, their artillery, even their ground attacks - says, look, if you can - if you know where the bases are, you don't need a massive assault. You can make - pinpoint attacks and withdraw and it shouldn't be so bad. Massoud Barzani - maybe, you know, a few hundred Turkish troops went in, not a few hundred thousand.

Mr. RUBIN: Well, yes. That's absolutely right. However, I would assert a cautionary note with regard to the quality of U.S. intelligence here. First of all, I was held at gunpoint by the PKK in October of 2003 when I was driving in this area along the Iranian-Turkish-Iraqi borders. When I got back to the Pentagon, I was working for the Pentagon at the time, the response was, oh, we didn't know they were there. But everyone else knew they were there. The fact of the matter is we don't have actionable intelligence. If it means going in and telling them where they were 48 hours ago, that's one thing. But telling them where they are at the present, just doesn't happen.

We also don't have many troops in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds' main complaint with this last attack is that we control the airspace over Iraq and therefore, the Turks violated the airspace. Either we gave them permission or we didn't. But either way, it's not an excuse for the Kurds.

Now, we're not worried about coming into conflict with Turkish troops if they come in because, again, we don't have many troops there. The main policy concern in Washington, and the reason why the Pentagon and the State Department want to avoid this getting out of control, is that the Turks come and say they are chasing terrorists, even if we agree that the Turks are chasing terrorists then the Iranians might come in anywhere along the border and say they're chasing terrorist too, and that could lead into a quick escalation of conflict.

CONAN: And just to throw another spanner into the works, the United States very dependent on the airbase Incirlik in Turkey, a NATO base. But the Turks have threatened before that if the United States did not cooperate maybe Incirlik would be close to the United States - very important to supporting U.S. activities, not just in Iraq, but Afghanistan, too.

Mr. RUBIN: Absolutely.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Michael Rubin.

Mr. RUBIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Michael Rubin, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, frequent visitor to Turkey and to Iraqi Kurdistan, with us here in Studio 3A.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Rice Visits Kirkuk as Turkish Army Stages Incursion

Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Ambassador  to Iraq Ryan Crocker meet with leaders in Kirkuk, Iraq. i

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (right) and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker (second from right) meet with Kurdish, Sunni, Christian, Turkmen and Shiite community leaders in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Tuesday. Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty
Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Ambassador  to Iraq Ryan Crocker meet with leaders in Kirkuk, Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (right) and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker (second from right) meet with Kurdish, Sunni, Christian, Turkmen and Shiite community leaders in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Tuesday.

Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday paid an unexpected visit to Kirkuk, even as the Turkish army sent soldiers about 1.5 miles into northern Iraq in a hunt for Kurdish rebels.

Rice met with members of a civilian-military reconstruction unit and about two dozen provincial politicians of varying backgrounds, emphasizing the need for unity.

"It is an important province for the future of Iraq, for a democratic Iraq, an Iraq that can be for all people," she said at the start of the meeting with the provincial leaders.

Sunni Arabs ended a yearlong political boycott earlier this month in Kirkuk — the hub of Iraq's northern oil fields — under a deal that sets aside government posts for Arabs. It was the biggest step yet toward unity ahead of a referendum on the area's future.

U.N. Representative Arrives

Rice highlighted that development — although a separate ethnic group is still boycotting the provincial governing council — and the new role of the United Nations in resolving the future of disputed Kirkuk.

The U.N. representative, who arrived last month, is aiming to help manage competing interests leading up to the Kirkuk referendum, which is expected in late 2008. Iraq's constitution required the referendum by the end of this year.

Turkey and other countries in the region with Kurdish minorities have long feared that Kurdish control of Kirkuk's vast wealth would encourage Kurds to declare independence from Iraq — a move that Iraq's neighbors could not tolerate.

Kurds are generally thought to have a slight majority in the province, with Sunni Arabs close behind, though a census has not been conducted in 50 years. Provinces cannot schedule new elections until passage of a law known as the Provincial Powers Act, which is currently mired in Iraq's parliament.

Rice's visit was meant to underscore an overall reduction in violence that the Bush administration largely attributes to the escalation of U.S. forces he ordered a year ago.

Iraq Violence Decreases

Attacks in Iraq are at their lowest levels since the first year of the American invasion in 2003, finally opening a window for reconciliation among rival sects, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said Sunday.

The Turkish army's incursion into northern Iraq represents a new threat, however.

Turkish officials said troops must cross the border to pursue Kurdish rebels who use the border region to attack Turkey.

Turkey sent 300 troops into northern Iraq at about 3 a.m. Tuesday, said Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for the regional Kurdistan government. He said the region was a deserted mountainous frontier area.

The Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, has battled for autonomy in southeastern Turkey for more than two decades and uses strongholds in northern Iraq for cross-border strikes.

It was unclear how long the Turkish soldiers who entered Iraq on Tuesday would stay, but a Turkish government official said they were sent as reinforcements to existing Turkish troops stationed farther inside Iraq.

About 1,200 Turkish military monitors have operated in northern Iraq since 1996 with permission from local authorities. A tank battalion has been stationed at a former airport at the border town of Bamerni and a few other military outposts were scattered in the region. Ankara rotates the troops there.

Asked about a reported clash between the Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels inside Iraq, Turkey's President Abdullah Gul said: "From now on, whatever is necessary in the struggle against terrorism, it is being done."

Turkish Incursion Poses Threat

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the incursion "is not acceptable and will lead to complicated problems."

"Iraq understands the threat the PKK represents, one that endangers Turkish security," al Dabbagh said. "But Iraq rejects any Turkish interference in Iraq."

Al-Dabbagh said the Iraqi government was given no warning about Tuesday's incursion.

Abdullah, the spokesman for the regional Kurdish government, also criticized the operation and cautioned that Turkish forces should be careful not to harm civilians who might be living in the area.

On Sunday, Turkey conducted airstrikes against PKK rebels in northern Iraq. As many as 50 fighter jets were involved in the attack, the biggest against the PKK in years.

An Iraqi official said the planes attacked several villages, killing one woman. The rebels said two civilians and five rebels died.

The Iraqi parliament on Monday condemned the bombing, calling it an "outrageous" violation of Iraq's sovereignty. Turkey said Sunday's attack used U.S. intelligence and was carried out with tacit U.S. approval.

Kirkuk is an especially coveted city for both the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish one in Irbil.

Kurds want to incorporate it into their self-rule area, but the idea has met stiff resistance from Arabs.

Much of Iraq's vast oil wealth lies under the ground in the region, as well as in the Shiite-controlled south. Apart from the petrodollars, Kurds have a strong cultural and emotional attachment to the area and consider Kirkuk, which they call "the Kurdish Jerusalem," part of their ancestral homeland.

Rice did not hold a separate meeting with the semiautonomous Kurdish leadership while in Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders have chafed under U.S. demands for greater inclusion in the Baghdad government and swifter work to complete a framework law for managing and distributing Iraq's oil wealth.

Kurdish leaders also favored a quicker referendum on Kirkuk and resented U.S. pressure this fall to do more to hunt the Kurdish rebels.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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