An agreement reached between Iraq and the United States gives Washington three years to withdraw its troops, but raises serious doubts over the future of Turkish military operations targeting terrorist camps in northern Iraq and its relations with Iraqi Kurds.
The pact leaves Iraqi air space under the authority of the central Iraqi government as of Jan. 1, 2009. This could put a dent in Turkey’s battle against outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, terrorists based in northern Iraq as the Turkish military’s air and ground strikes on PKK camps occur only after authorization from the United States.
"We will not need to seek permission from the U.S. for any operations against terrorists," said Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül yesterday. He implied the pact would render the Nov. 5 agreement invalid and hinder the military’s ability to hit the PKK in northern Iraq. The agreement marked the beginning of intelligence sharing and coordination between Ankara and Washington.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry has not yet made an official statement about the document waiting for approval by the Iraqi parliament. Analysts told the Hürriyet Daily News yesterday that setting a deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq was a step in the right direction, but noted it would also herald setbacks for neighboring countries, including Turkey.
"The Iraqi central government will be in charge of the intelligence sharing mechanism for terrorist activities. But Baghdad cannot decide anything concerning the issue without consulting Iraqi Kurds in the north," said veteran diplomat Özdem Sanberk.
This means any future operations by the Turkish army into northern Iraq could hamper ties with Baghdad and the regional Kurdish administration that both deem assaults against their soil as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. Sanberk said Turkey must press ahead with diplomatic contact with Iraqi Kurdish leaders that have been underway for a while.
"Turkey will no longer be able to blame others for any failure in the fight against terrorism," he said. "We must trust our own diplomacy and security institutions to progress."
Turkey has long accused Washington of not taking enough steps to combat the PKK, but the Nov. 5 deal between Turkey’s prime minister and U.S. President George W. Bush opened a new chapter in cooperation in eradicating the PKK from Iraqi soil.
The Iraqi agreement assures Iraqi territory will not be used as a launching pad for attacks against neighboring countries. "Of course, we will not allow it," said Iraq’s ambassador to Ankara, Sabah Omran. "We cannot allow our territory to be used to launch attacks on neighboring countries. We assure all neighboring countries that will not happen. That is absolutely clear."
Şanlı Bahadır Koç of Ankara-based think tank, Center for Eurasian Studies, said the lingering U.S. presence has delayed reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites and also kept alive Iraqi Kurdish hopes for independence.
"The regional administration in northern Iraq will have to take into account the sensitivities of Turkey after a U.S. withdrawal," he said. Last month, the Turkish Parliament extended the authorization of the military’s mandate to carry out cross-border operations in northern Iraq for another year. The move is aimed at setting up a security zone inside Iraq for the military to better patrol the border and prevent PKK infiltration.