After weeks of air strikes and artillery attacks, Turkey has made good on threats to send ground troops into northern Iraq. Iraqi officials say hundreds of soldiers penetrated several miles into Iraqi territory in pursuit (Bloomberg) of separatist Kurdish rebels on December 18, marking the first land invasion since the Turkish parliament approved military action in October. The Turkish military confirmed conducting a "small-scale" incursion into Iraq after its troops spotted Kurdish fighters trying to "move into Turkey" (al-Jazeera). The troops later withdrew (AP).
The incursion, while brief, threatens to resurface tensions that had partly subsided since Turkey’s vote to enable cross-border operations. The reported attacks also come on the heels of weekend air strikes and coincided with a surprise visit (CBS/AP) to the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Washington is supplying Turkey with intelligence to aid military strikes (WashPost) on Kurdistan Workers Party fighters, known as the PKK, including the air strikes on December 16. Iraqi leaders condemned the air-raid (IHT) and the Washington Post notes that cooperation with the Turkish military “could complicate U.S. diplomatic initiatives in Iraq.”
Rice’s visit to the region highlighted another issue linked to cross-border tensions—the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Turkey is worried about an emerging Kurdish state, with Kirkuk propelling its growth. The region around Kirkuk is an ethnic melting pot of Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians, and Kurds. Large oil fields (EIA) lie beneath the northern city (prewar production was around 680,000 barrels per day, about a third of Iraq’s total output). And the struggle for control of Kirkuk—which is claimed by Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs alike—is fast evolving into one of the most heated regional turf wars in Iraq.
The city’s status was supposed to be nearing resolution. Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution calls for a referendum by the end of 2007 on whether al-Tamin province and its capital city, Kirkuk, would remain under Baghdad’s authority or become the domain of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The referendum was aimed in part at reversing Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” policy of the 1970s and 1980s, when Kurds, Assyrians, and Turkmen* were forcibly expelled (IRIN) from the region and replaced by Arabs. Kurdish leaders have agreed to delay the referendum for six months while a UN envoy seeks to "sort out the issue" (AFP).
Regional experts have been bracing for violence if the Kirkuk issue is not handled with caution. As the Economist notes, while much of Iraq has been stabilized by the addition of U.S. troops, “the exception is the disputed city of Kirkuk, where ethno-sectarian violence, mainly between Kurds and Sunni Arabs, shows no sign of abating.” Some Kurds see political infighting in Baghdad (RFE/RL) as the root cause for the delays on Kirkuk’s status. Surely adding to the sectarian friction, however, are floods of Kurds and Arabs into the region who seek to sway any referendum vote. To try to ease tensions, Iraq’s Shiite-led central government has offered Arab families as much as fifteen thousand dollars and land to voluntarily leave (USAToday).
From Turkey’s perspective any vote that gives Kurds control would be disastrous—considered the “first step toward an independent Kurdish state,” as this Backgrounder explains. Kenneth Katzman and Alfred B. Prados, Middle East analysts with the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, say Ankara’s chief concern is economic (PDF). Turkey “fears that affiliation of Kirkuk to the KRG would give the Kurds enough economic strength to support a drive for independence.” Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has denied claims that a successful referendum would be a green light for independence (Today’s Zaman), but Turkish officials say they remain concerned about Kurdish intentions. Strikes on the PKK are seen in part as a reflection of those fears.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Turkmen were relocated to Kirkuk during Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” campaign of the 1970s and ‘80s. In fact Turkmen were expelled.