- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

Last Tuesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, gave the keynote speech at the 25th Annual Conference on U.S.-Turkish Relations. He recently attended a symposium in Turkey on global terrorism and international cooperation, and took a day off walking around the Blue Mosque and Ayasofia in Istanbul. “That gave me the deeper understanding of the civilization,” he said.

Gen. Pace said the first question Turkish journalists always asked him was when the United States would act against the PKK, and the second was what he thinks of the movie “The Valley of the Wolves.” He responded that the movie is fiction, and that Turkey and the United States, the two NATO allies, have not fought in the past and will not fight in the future. But Turks see the incident on July 4, 2003, as proof of hostility. In fact, the infamous movie opens up with what had happened on that day.

On that day, U.S. forces in Suleimania, Northern Iraq detained 11 Turkish Special Forces soldiers in their own headquarters, took them outside handcuffed and put bags on their heads. The Turkish soldiers had been expecting a routine visit, then suddenly found themselves confronted by American soldiers with their weapons drawn. The U.S. said it had intelligence indicating the Turkish soldiers planned to assassinate the Kirkuk governor or another senior Kurdish official. No one knows whether those allegations are true. Turkey doesn’t know where the U.S. got its intelligence, whether it acted without any intelligence, or why it believed the report without confronting Turkey about it before the arrest.

Some say it would have been better for the soldiers to be killed rather than to be arrested, because their arrest is an affront to Turkish pride in both the military and the country. Gen. Pace should have learnt from his trip to Istanbul that civilization in those lands prioritizes the military as a guarantee to future security. Turks believe the U.S. arrested those soldiers to weaken the Turkish army in Northern Iraq and favor the Kurds. That perception still fuels suspicion that the United States provoked unrest by separatist Kurdish nationalists in Diyarbakir, Batman and elsewhere in the region today. People believe the United States is encouraging the Kurds to establish an independent state by taking land from Turkey.

Kurdish leaders have their own ideas about U.S. action in the region. When PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was arrested, he downplayed the Kurdish rebellion against Ankara only to achieve cultural rights and freedom of education and the press. But today, Kurdish leaders in Turkey are making political demands in Ankara, asking that the constitution be based on an equal partnership between the Kurds and the Turks, and to make Kurdish the second native language of Turkey.

“We have opened the Pandora’s box, and the question is, what is the way forward?” U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad recently told the Los Angeles Times. It’s only natural that Turks would express anti-American sentiments if they perceive that U.S. plans in the region not only hurt their national pride, but also threaten their territorial integrity.

If the United States were to arrest one or two senior members of the PKK, it would go a long way toward mending the rift. Obviously, no one expects the United States to take responsibility for ending the PKK threat against Turkey. Turkey’s hands are full working to respond to the demands of its Kurdish citizens. But Turks are looking for the United States to clarify its intentions in the region.

“The worst thing for Turkey is not to have a stabilized Iraq,” Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told me last week. “If you decide that is the worst thing, then the first thing to do is to stabilize Iraq. That is what we are about. Once we stabilize Iraq, then Iraq, Turkey and the United States can take action against the PKK. But first, you deal with the major issue. That is getting Iraq stabilized.”

With Kurdish unrest spreading, it is equally important to reassess whether the timeline for action against the PKK is realistic. Prior to removal of Saddam Hussein, Turkish forces in Northern Iraq launched several operations against the PKK with the peshmergas — Iraqi Kurdish forces — with America’s blessing. The senior PKK members are not difficult to find, and arresting them would not require a major military campaign. Murat Karayilan, a prominent PKK member, is not hiding from journalists. In August, an AFP correspondent met with him in Northern Iraq for an exclusive interview. If a Western journalist did the same with Osama bin Laden, he would have been captured long ago.

Turkey and the United States want to put their relationship back on track. Many want to believe what Mr. England said, that “[w]hile there was a bump in the road, we have an excellent relationship with Turkey.” If the U.S. military helped capture some of the PKK leadership, it would ease suspicion and paranoia that could prevent a healthy relationship in the future.

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. A former BBC reporter, she writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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