Thursday, March 29, 2007


When Iraq’s vice president came to Turkey’s capital on Tuesday to plead with the Turks not to invade northern Iraq to kill Kurdish terrorists, he spoke to the press in code.

The PKK is a Kurdish terrorist group that has killed some 30,000 Turks (including more than 50 diplomats) since 1990. The PKK wants to carve a Kurdish state out of the dry reaches of eastern Turkey.

Their private war has nothing to do with the Iraq war, but the Turkish response could fatally undermine American efforts there. The Turks invaded northern Iraq in Saddam’s time, driving some 50 kilometers into Iraq to overrun safe havens and kill terrorists, Egemen Bagis, an adviser to the Turkish prime minister told me.

They could do it again. Turkish troop movements to the border region have been increasing in the past few weeks.

Mr. Bagis, who is also a member of parliament from Istanbul, insisted that the troop movements are just part of regular rotations, but later said that Turkey always surges troops in the spring, when the weather allows the PKK to come down through the mountain passes and murder civilians. If you’re counting, those are two different answers.

If the Turks do cross into democratic Iraq, U.S. relations with Ankara could hit a new low. And Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, is a Kurd. His son Qubad represents the northern Kurdish region in Washington. So, Iraq would feel compelled to respond. In the worst-case scenario, that could send Iraq to war with the second-largest army in NATO. By treaty and presence, America would be on both sides.

This brings us to the visit of Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi this past Tuesday — and his coded message.

Mr. Hashemi told the New Anatolian, one of Turkey’s three English-language papers, that “Iraq will never allow its soil be used as base for attacks against other countries, especially against its brother and friend, Turkey.” On one level, he is telling the Turks, don’t worry. We will take care of the PKK. Hopefully, they found that to be reassuring.

But take a look at the phrase “brother and friend” and other meanings open up.

Let me explain by relating a story that Qubad, the son of Iraq’s prime minister, told me.

His father recently visited the U.S. State Department and repeatedly referred to “our brother Iran” and “our brother Syria,” which must have seemed odd to the diplomats because they know that Syria and Iran are behind the insurgency in Iraq.

When the Iraqi prime minister got around to mentioning his allies, he referred to “our friend America” and “our friend Britain.” The American officials felt slighted. Isn’t it better to be a brother than a friend? Why do you call us friends and your enemies brothers? Someone finally asked.

Mr. Talabani explained: “You can choose your friends; your brothers are imposed on you.” This friend-brother distinction seems backwards to American ears. But, in Arab families, with multiple mothers, brothers are rivals and competitors, while friends are reliable. This brought smiles to the crew on Foggy Bottom’s seventh floor.

So, what was Iraq’s vice president really saying to the Turks? You are both a threat and an ally and we know it. Or, be more of a friend and less of a brother, please. As for President Bush, he is surely hoping that Turkey wants to be our friend, too. Democrats in Congress, who are pushing a resolution to condemn the Turks for slaughtering Armenians in 1915, should also be careful. Their non-binding resolution, which is expected to be voted on in the coming weeks, could make Turkey more of a brother and less of a friend — a move that could make the Iraq war harder to win.

Richard Miniter is the author of “Losing bin Laden” and “Shadow War.”

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