ARBIL – Growing confrontation between Iraqi Kurds and neighboring Turkey presents a new threat to a fragile calm in the north.
Tensions have run high between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but they were further exacerbated last month when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Teyyip Erdogan threatened to send forces to northern Iraq.
The aim, Erdogan said, was to crack down on guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and to protect the rights of ethnic Turkomens in the oil-rich city Kirkuk.
"There are efforts to alter the demographic structure of Kirkuk. We cannot remain a bystander to such developments," Erdogan told members of his ruling Justice and Development Party Jan. 17.
Some Kurdish leaders fear a new war front could open up in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, which has been by far the safest part of the war-torn country. They fear this could open the door for further intervention by other regional powers like Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
While Turkey speaks of the PKK and Turkomens’ rights in Iraq to justify any possible military invasion, some analysts speak of its other intentions.
"One clear reason for military invasion by Turkey would be their old ambition to re-annex Mosul ‘Vilayet’ (province) to its territory. They are still thinking in terms of the old Ottoman empire," Ata Qaradakhi, a political analyst from Sulaimaniya in Kurdistan told IPS.
Iraq’s major northern provinces which were once a part of the Mosul Vilayet under the Ottoman empire were incorporated into the Iraqi state when it was founded in the early years of the 20th century by Britain.
"Turkish leaders are also worried over the growing influence and authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq since the fall of Saddam, and fear it could inspire their own Kurdish population," Qaradakhi added.
Over the past few weeks, movements by Turkish troops on the border with Iraq are reported to have increased. Turkey has deployed around 240,000 troops on the border strip with Iraq, and has bombarded areas within northern Iraqi Kurdistan region several times over the past eight months.
In the 1990s, Turkish troops carried out cross-border operations in pursuit of PKK guerrillas based in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurdistan regional parliament held a meeting last week to discuss increasing threats of a Turkish military invasion.
"It is true that we must be on alert, and careful, but shouldn’t attach too much importance to threats by the Turkish parliament or other parties (in that country)," Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government Nechirvan Barzani told parliament.
"Under Iraq’s current circumstances, neither Turkey nor any other (regional) country can send troops to Iraq. Then the issue wouldn’t be only Kurds, it would be the issue of violating the sovereignty of another state, that’s Iraq."
Kurds count on the presence of U.S. troops as a bulwark against any regional threats.
But several Kurdish politicians sharply criticized the government of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for not reacting strongly enough to Turkish threats.
Turkey has called on Iraqis to change constitutional Article 140, which sets out a roadmap to bring normalcy to the disputed oil-rich city Kirkuk in the north. The city has large numbers of ethnic Arabs, Turkomens and Kurds. The Turkish demand, which seeks more for Turkomens in the city, has sparked angry reactions in Kurdish circles.
"Turkey must give others the rights which it gives to itself," Ghafour Makhmouri, a Kurdish lawmaker said during the parliament session.
"We have also the right to demand changes in Turkish constitution regarding the rights of millions of Kurds in Turkey, the same way that Turkey assumes the right to ask for the rights of Turkomens in Iraq."
Kurds hope that once Article 140 is executed, they can vote to bring the province within their autonomous region.
Meanwhile the Turkish government stopped fuel trucks from crossing its border to Iraq this week. It said it will not accept the Kurdistan Regional Government as a legitimate partner for sending fuel to Iraq, and would sign deals only with the Iraqi central government.
But many believe Turkey will not go so far as to invade Iraq. Apart from other things, that would thwart Turkish hopes of joining the European Union, Qaradakhi said.
"Kurds in Iraq can also create problems for Turkey just as much as Turkey can do. They can use the Kurdish card in Turkey to create unrest there, and Turkey knows that that wouldn’t serve Turkish interests."