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Crucial US Allies on Iraq Fall Out Over Oil
Published on Friday, November 1,2002 by the Guardian/UK
Crucial US Allies on Iraq Fall Out Over Oil
by Owen Bowcott in Ankara
 

Two of the United States' closest strategic allies in its campaign against Saddam Hussein - Turkey and the autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq - have fallen out amid a chorus of belligerent pre-election rhetoric.

As party minibuses are touring the streets broadcasting arabesque folk music and political slogans to drum up support for the weekend poll, the veteran prime minister Bulent Ecevit and senior generals have threatened to seize the oil-rich Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Mosul in the event of war.

But the outburst of nationalist rhetoric in Ankara is having a limited impact on an election in which politicians across the political spectrum would prefer to avoid an American-led war for fear of it destabilizing a weak economy.

In party headquarters - uniformly decked out with carnival-style bunting and streamers - the crippled economy is the main issue.

Turkey is crucial for America's military preparations. The air base at Incirlik, in southern Turkey, is used daily by British and US planes patrolling the no-fly zones over northern Iraq.

Air assaults on Iraqi defenses north of Baghdad would be difficult to launch without these Turkish bases.

But earlier this month Mr Ecevit, 77, who has served as prime minister five times, declared: "We know that the United States cannot carry out this operation without us. That is why we are advising that it abandon the idea. We're telling Washington we are worried about the matter."

Few doubt that Turkey would fall into line once war became inevitable, but it remains anxious about the economic chaos war would bring. As it frequently points out, enforcement of sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime has cost the country between £25bn and £40bn in lost trade over the past decade.

Unemployment, in a population of 68 million, is well over 10%, and inflation is running at 35%. An influx of Iraqi refugees would further hinder recovery.

But last month, the army reluctantly began preparing emergency tents at sites along the border.

On top of the economic worries, Mr Ecevit's recurring nightmare is that war would lead to the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

The outgoing prime minister, whose protracted illness led to the collapse of his governing coalition and early elections, fears that Turkey's 12 million Kurds, mainly in the south-east, would break away and fragment the country.

Reconciliation between the two Kurdish factions in northern Iraq earlier this summer sharpened Ankara's suspicions that America had secretly offered independence in return for Kurdish cooperation.

The Turkish government further reasoned that if the Kurds occupied Kirkuk and Mosul, once Ottoman cities, the oil wealth in the area would boost their political aspirations.

Threats have come from government spokesmen and retired generals, suggesting that Turkish troops would occupy cities in northern Iraq once fighting began.

Rightwing parties have urged preventive occupation of the oilfields. Opponents have warned of a Cyprus-style crisis.

Hoshar Zebari, the head of international relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, held talks with the government in Ankara. Afterwards he told the Guardian: "Mr Ecevit and Mrs Ciller have been competing with each other over who is more nationalistic on the issue of attacking the Kurds in northern Iraq.

"We made clear we will oppose unilateral intervention by Turkey. People will resist."

Mr Ecevit, the leader of the Democratic Left party, has not been a persuasive election campaigner. Few expect his party to poll above the 10% threshold which allows a party is parliamentary representation.

The threshold has also proved a barrier for Turkey's Kurdish groups. To improve its chances of success, the main Kurdish party, Hadep, has teamed up with two smaller leftwing parties.

The authorities are clearly worried about this strategy. More than 20 members of the party have been banned from standing as candidates.

At Hadep headquarters in a quiet Ankara side-street, Kemal Pozoz, the vice-president, sits warming his hands on a tulip-shaped glass of sweet tea.

"Turkey's rulers have their eyes on the oil-producing areas," he said. "The Kurds in Iraq want a federal country. In Turkey we just want our basic human rights and to be able to receive education in the Kurdish language."

Support is growing, he insisted. Last weekend in Istanbul at least 300,000 people, mainly Kurds forced out of their villages in the south-east, attended a party electoral rally.

"Maybe every Kurd has a utopia in his mind of an independent state," Mr Pozoz says, "but we are demanding our rights within the Turkish state."

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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