- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2007

ANKARA, Turkey

urkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Iraqi Kurds this week against interfering in southeastern Turkey, where the Kurdish majority is fighting Turkish security forces, saying: “The price for them will be very high.”

Mr. Erdogan was responding to Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, who said Iraqi Kurds would retaliate for any Turkish interference in northern Iraq by stirring up trouble in southeastern Turkey.

“He’s out of place,” Mr. Erdogan said of Mr. Barzani. “He’ll be crushed under his words.”

The verbal sparring was set off by Mr. Barzani over the weekend when he said in an interview with Al Arabiya television that Iraqi Kurds could “interfere” in Kurdish-majority Turkish cities if Ankara interferes in northern Iraq.

The remark touched a nerve in Turkey, where more than 37,000 people have been killed in fighting between Turkish security forces and Kurdish rebels since 1984, most of them in the southeastern region bordering Iraq. Turkey fears that any moves toward greater independence for Kurds in northern Iraq could incite Turkey’s own estimated 14 million Kurds to outright rebellion.

Turkey is especially concerned about Mr. Barzani’s bid to incorporate the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk into his semiautonomous region, fearing Iraqi Kurds may use the city’s oil wealth to organize an independence struggle.

“Northern Iraq, which is a neighbor, is making a serious mistake,” Mr. Erdogan said.

The Foreign Ministry also sent a note to the Iraqi government “reminding them of their responsibilities on the subject of the fight against terror,” government spokesman Cemil Cicek said.

“The source of the ethnic terrorism that is taking lives in Turkey is Iraq,” Mr. Cicek said at a press conference after a Cabinet meeting, referring to Kurdish rebels who hide and train in the mountains of northern Iraq.

Later in the day, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, telephoned Mr. Erdogan to allay his concerns, saying he was saddened by the rising tensions with Turkey, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.

Last week, the Iraqi government decided to determine the status of Kirkuk which is disputed among several ethnic groups by the end of the year. The plan is expected to turn Kirkuk and its oil reserves over to Kurdish control, a step rejected by many of Iraq’s Arabs and its Turkmen ethnic Turks who are strongly backed by the Turkish government.

Some in Turkey have hinted at military action to prevent the Kurds from gaining control of Kirkuk.

Mr. Barzani’s remarks were front-page news and angered many in Turkey, with opposition parties criticizing the government for not responding harshly to the Kurdish leader’s threat.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a former economics professor, called Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday to discuss Mr. Barzani’s remarks, the Anatolia news agency reported.

Kursad Tuzmen, the Turkish minister in charge of trade, said Monday: “Turkey’s hand of friendship is warm and solid. But for those who don’t deserve it, it is very heavy it should never be tested.” Turkey is an important trading partner for Iraqi Kurds.

In the interview with Al Arabiya on Saturday, Mr. Barzani said: “Turkey is not allowed to intervene in the Kirkuk issue and if it does, we will interfere in Diyarbakir’s issues and other cities in Turkey.” Diyarbakir is the largest city in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated southeast.

When asked about the Turkmen minority in Kirkuk and Turkey’s concern for its ethnic brethren, Mr. Barzani shot back:

“There are 30 million Kurds in Turkey, and we don’t interfere there. If interfere in Kirkuk over just thousands of Turkmen, then we will take action for the 30 million Kurds in Turkey.

“I hope we don’t reach this point, but if the Turks insist on intervening in the Kirkuk matter, I am ready to take responsibility for our response,” Mr. Barzani said. The ancient city of Kirkuk has a large minority of Turkmen as well as Christians, Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians.

AP writer Benjamin Harvey in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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