- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

During President Bush’s meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday, concerns over Iraq were at the forefront of discussions. But the two countries have some conflicting interests when it comes to Iraq. Since stability there is a top priority for the United States, many American officials favor giving Iraqis, particularly the Kurds, the autonomy they demand. But Turkey is worried about an autonomous Kurdish region on its border and the Turkish Kurdish terrorists that have found a haven in Kurdish Iraq for years.

Messrs. Bush and Erdogan must also acknowledge that they have converging interests. Neither Turkey nor Washington want to see a restless Iraqi Kurdish population, embittered over losing the autonomy they’ve enjoyed since the end of the 1991 Gulf War and focused on grudges of the past. Also, neither country wants to see the currently dormant Kurdish conflict in Turkey erupt again. U.S. officials, therefore, should also be concerned about the estimated 5,000 Turkish-Kurdish militants within Iraq.

Resolution of these issues seems relatively straightforward on paper, but nationalist sentiments and enmity over past wrongs conspire against stability. Turkish government officials are pressured by the influential military, which takes a hard line on the Kurdish issue. Many Iraqi Kurds, meanwhile, are unwilling to confront the Turkish Kurds living on their soil, who they regarded as Kurdish protectors.

There are a number of reasonable voices in both Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdish region who need to be bolstered. Europe will be pivotal in maintaining stability in Iraq through its influence on Turkey. If the European Union in December sets a date for starting negotiations for Turkey to join the union, then Ankara’s ability to keep its military in check would be bolstered. If Turkey isn’t rewarded for its military restraint (lately) in dealing with Iraqi Kurds and improving the treatment of its own Kurds, the political currency of these policies will plunge. This could have a profound impact on Iraq.

Mr. Bush also has a key hand to play with Turkey, on the order of $8.5 billion. That’s the sizeable carrot the United States is dangling in front of Turkey to induce officials to commit to refrain from launching military campaigns into northern Iraq. Turkey has yet to make the commitment.

With so much at stake, Mr. Bush’s decision to establish an amicable relationship with Mr. Erdogan was wise. Turkey has been working hard to repair the rift with Washington. If it wants to fully bridge the rupture, it must show flexibility, within reason, on the Kurdish issue.

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