Tensions remain high between Turkey and Kurdish regions of Iraq as diplomatic efforts continue to dissuade Ankara from launching cross-border military operations against Turkish-Kurd rebels in northern Iraq. Turkey accuses Iraqi Kurds of supporting the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, rebels who have been fighting for autonomy in Turkey since 1984 - - a charge Iraqi Kurdish officials deny.

The crisis began earlier this month when Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani threatened to stoke unrest in Kurdish-dominated regions of Turkey if Ankara intervenes in northern Iraq. Angered by his remarks, the Turkish military threatened to launch attacks against PKK rebels in northern Iraq if the Kurdistan Regional Government fails to bring them under control. Turkey, the European Union and the United States consider the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK a terrorist group.

Some observers note that the dispute was initially triggered by an Iraqi plan to hold a referendum this year on the final status of Kirkuk, a largely Kurdish oil-rich city that Iraqi Kurds want to attach to their autonomous region in northern Iraq. Turkish leaders have warned that they could not allow Kurdish control of Kirkuk. But Henri Barkey, an international relations professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, says Turkey's concerns do not center on Kirkuk.

"There's no question that the Kirkuk issue is not a real issue for Turkey as much as it is an issue that gives Turkey the ability to say something about what happens in northern Iraq," says Barkey. "Many Turkish officials have admitted openly that the real issue for them is strategic. It is the potential development of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The issue of Kirkuk is that it does give Kurdistan resources. And resources make it a much more viable state, less amenable to manipulation. That's the big threat." 

Politics, Oil and Economics

Many analysts say Turkish leaders fear that Kirkuk, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of Iraq's oil production, could empower Iraqi Kurds to move toward independence and encourage similar separatist tendencies among Turkey's estimated 15-million Kurds. Some experts wonder, however, why Ankara worries about this issue, given that Kirkuk oil exports travel in pipelines across Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea. Among them is Lehigh University's Henri Barkey, who argues that Iraqi Kurdish independence may not be a bad thing for Turkey.

"It may have a positive impact rather than a negative impact on Turkish Kurds. If Iraqi Kurds were to become independent and have good relations with Ankara, then the Turkish Kurds are less likely to join the PKK and less likely to oppose a government in Ankara that is good to Iraqi Kurds," says Barkey. 

Some analysts say Turkey realizes that an independent Kurdish region is taking shape and that it has allowed investment and labor to move freely into northern Iraq. According to former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, an expert on the Kurds, that indicates a level of realism within the Turkish leadership.

"Turkey's approach to the Kurdish question has been extremely pragmatic. Almost everybody in Turkey acknowledges that an independent Kurdistan already exists and that there isn't much that Turkey can do about it. And the interesting thing is the natural orientation of Iraqi Kurdistan is toward the West, and that means toward Turkey," says Galbraith. "And Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan have a lot in common. They're secular, they're pro-western, they both wish to be democratic and they are non-Arab. So when Turkey looks at Iraqi Kurdistan, some people see a threat, others see a place that is a buffer against Islamist fundamentalism."


But some analysts argue that Ankara's position ultimately hinges on whether a potential Iraqi Kurdish state supports terrorism against Turkey. Analyst Soner Cagaptay [chap-THAI] of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy says normalization between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds is unlikely while PKK rebels continue to carry out attacks against Turkey from bases in northern Iraq.

"If the PKK issue, which is a thorn in the relationship, were to be taken out, I can see some sort of normalization building up, and Turkey and Iraqi Kurds actually seeing eye-to-eye on so many other issues. For that to happen, the Iraqi Kurds will have to stop providing safe havens to the PKK and take action against this terrorist group, which is based in territory controlled by the two Iraqi Kurdish parties," says Cagaptay. 

Although some experts say the PKK is more a tactical problem than a strategic one for Turkey, most agree that Iraqi Kurds will have to address the issue. And Lehigh University's Henri Barkey says this has to be done even if Iraqi Kurdistan does not gain full independence.

"Even as part of a federal arrangement within northern Iraq, they'll have to deal with the PKK. There's no way out. Both sides need to work [out] these things quietly behind the scenes. Unfortunately, this tit-for-tat war of words is not helping either side. It reduces the ability of either side to come to the table to make concessions," says Barkey. 

Iraqi Kurdish leaders and the Baghdad government have warned that Turkey would encounter massive resistance if it were to launch cross-border military operations into northern Iraq. But some experts say that resistance would depend on how Turkish forces entered the country - - suggesting that Iraqi Kurds may turn a blind eye if Turkish commandos go quietly after PKK rebel bases in Iraq.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.