Kurdish successes in Iraq's elections, notably in the disputed oil center of Kirkuk, have heightened Turkey's worries about a future Kurdish drive for independence and Iraq's consequent territorial disintegration.
With domestic pressure increasing on Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ministers have hinted at renewed military intervention. This is causing additional strains in Ankara's relations with the United States. Turkish concerns focus on the area around multiethnic Kirkuk, where the Brotherhood slate allied to the Kurdish Alliance of Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani won 59 percent of the provincial council vote. The Turkoman Front, representing a minority that Ankara has vowed to protect, took 18 percent.
Turkey ruled Kirkuk until 1923, and nationalists still regard it as Turkish territory. Erdogan has warned that Turkey will not stand by if Kurds try to realize their objective of including Kirkuk in the Kurdish autonomous region. He complained last month that tens of thousands of Kurds had moved into the area since the war. Many want to reclaim land and property lost to the forcible "Arabization" policy pursued by Saddam Hussein.
Ankara protested Monday that resulting "imbalances" had skewed the Kirkuk poll. "Some people are looking the other way while mass migration takes place," Erdogan said, in a dig at the United States. "This is going to create major difficulties in the future."
The issue has dominated the Turkish media for weeks amid reports of sporadic assaults and intimidation of Turkmen. Turkmen and Iraqi Arabs have vowed to resist Kirkuk's assimilation amid talk of possible civil war. "Kirkuk is the No. 1 security issue and public concern right now," a Turkish diplomat said. "Kirkuk is a potential powder keg. For us it has special status. It is like Jerusalem. It belongs to all the people. We do not want to intervene in Iraq. But we have red lines -- Kirkuk and attacks on ethnic minorities."
Other considerations are in play. Whoever controls Kirkuk potentially controls oil fields representing 40 percent of Iraq's proved reserves. Such wealth could make an independent Kurdish state economically viable. There are also widely shared concerns that the Iraqi Kurds' advances could inspire emulation by the Kurdish minority in southeast Turkey as well as among Kurds in Syria and Iran.
U.S. reluctance to suppress 4,000 secessionist Kurdistan Workers Party guerrillas exiled in northeast Iraq could tempt Ankara to do the job. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to calm things down in Ankara last week, reiterating Washington's commitment "to the territorial integrity of Iraq." Kirkuk's status should be decided by all Iraqis, she said.
Like the United States, the European Union would frown on any intervention, even though the Western powers continue to oppose Kurdish independence. U.S. military bases in northern Iraq are reportedly being discreetly reinforced.
The official Kurdish aim is fully autonomous status within a democratic, federal Iraq. One leading Kurdish politician, Hoshyar Zebari, recently criticized a petition seeking immediate independence. But the national election results have given the Kurds significant leverage, and they may insist on Kirkuk as the capital of Kurdistan in return for supporting the new government.
Full independence remains the hope of many if not most Kurds. Even if they obtain the federal constitutional guarantees they want, and assuming old internecine feuds remain in check, sooner or later they may seek the freedom and self-determination that George W. Bush recently declared a universal right. Kurdistan's most likely president, Massoud Barzani, already sounded like a head of state when he insisted in a TV interview that Kirkuk was a Kurdish city. "Turkey should not intervene in our domestic affairs," he said. "The result of such an intervention would be a disaster."