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Turkey Moves Closer to Iraqi Kurds


In December a private Turkish airline began flying between Istanbul and Irbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish-controlled northern region. Company officials say booming business between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds propelled their decision to become the first Turkish airline company to connect Turkey to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Amberin Zaman reports from Ankara on the increasingly cordial relationship between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds.

The commander in chief of Turkey's Armed Forces, General Hilmi Ozkok, recently summarized Turkey's new policy when he said the country needed to adapt to what he called the "changing conditions" in Iraq.

Until recently it would not have been surprising for General Ozkok's colleagues in the military to threaten an invasion of northern Iraq if the Kurds were to seek to establish their own state.

But Iraq's newly approved constitution creates a federal model that gives the Kurds greater autonomy than they have ever enjoyed.

Safeen Dizayee is in charge of foreign relations for the largest Kurdish faction in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party called KDP for short. Mr. Dizayee recently told VOA that Turkey has come to accept that the federal model has been embraced not only by the Kurds, but by most Iraqis and has revised its policies accordingly.

"Recently as you know the referendum on the constitution was passed where there is a constitution [sic] within that constitution it gives legal status for the situation of Kurdistan, for self rule, self administration of the Kurds and this is recognized by the Iraqi people and also per the United Nations program it is documented and has gained recognition by Iraqi people, by the national assembly therefore we feel there is much more of an understanding by Turkey that the will of the Iraqi people is being respected and the pragmatic position and the approach of the ruling party, the A.K. party seems to be more positive," he said.

Before the U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, U.S. and British warplanes that patrolled a no-fly zone over the Kurdish region to protect it from possible attack by Hussein's forces were based in Turkey. Under allied air cover, the Kurds created their own de-facto state that many Turks fear will become a magnet for Turkey's estimated 14 million Kurds.

Mr. Dizayee says that one way of helping to overcome that suspicion is to promote trade.

"The volume of trade between Turkey and Kurdistan has increased especially in the construction sector," he explained. "There is a huge demand and most of the companies functioning in Kurdistan are Turkish companies. There are almost $1 billion worth of contracts [that] have been awarded to Turkish companies and that is excluding household goods, electrical goods and foodstuff which is also coming from Turkey."

Analysts say that alongside trade, a far more crucial step towards bolstering ties between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds would be cooperation in combating terrorism.

About 5,000 Kurdish rebels that had been fighting the Turkish army since 1984 retain mountain bases in northern Iraq. After a five-year lull, the group known as the PKK, which is on the State Departments list of terrorist organizations, has resumed attacks against government forces in predominantly Kurdish southeast Turkey.

Hasim Hasimi is an independent Kurdish politician from Turkey. He believes that the Iraqi Kurds can play an important role in helping mediate a lasting truce between Turkey and the PKK.

Like many Kurdish politicians in Turkey, Mr. Hasim argues that the best way to solve the PKK problem is for the government to issue an amnesty for PKK fighters.

In October, Turkey's national intelligence chief, Emre Taner, traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to meet with KDP leader Massoud Barzani. They are widely reported to have discussed possible joint measures to address the PKK problem. But hawks within Turkey's security establishment continue to favor military action against the rebels.

Mr. Hasim counters that more than two decades of fighting has failed to extinguish the PKK. He says that alternative means need to be explored if Turkey is to solve its Kurdish problem.