- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2007

When I interviewed Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England a year ago, my questions and his answers reflected absolutely contradictory perceptions of the U.S.-Turkey relationship. At one point, he asked, “Can I ask you a question: what is the paranoia that you have about the U.S.?Turkish relationship?”

Mr. England disagreed with the idea that trust between the two allies was compromised when the Turkish parliament refused to give American troops a northern route into Iraq. “[Just] because you have disagreements, it does not mean that you are not still good friends,” he said. “And that is the way it is with Turkey. Just because every single thing is not agreed upon 100 percent, it does not mean that you don’t have a strong relationship. That’s why I say there is a certain paranoia in Turkey that’s unfounded.”

The paranoia — if that’s what it is — is an intense questioning of the U.S. objective in Iraq. President Bush has said he would keep Iraq intact. Yet the intolerable security situation suggests that the country has already been divided.

Today, people in Iraq are on the verge of losing their identities as “Iraqis” and becoming forever divided into Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. Constitutionally, the Iraqi central government is so weak that continuing as a single country is almost impossible. The central government does not even have the authority to collect taxes from its citizens. The regional governments are over empowered.

Testifying last week before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claimed that Turkey shares a border with a place called “Kurdistan.” The recently agreed upon petroleum law allows the regional governments to make deals with foreign oil companies. This new law, favored by Northern Iraqi leader Massoud Barzani, will encourage international companies to spend billions in Iraq to repair pipelines, upgrade wells, develop new fields and begin to exploit the country’s vast petroleum reserves.

Northern Iraq is already ahead of the rest of the country. Intriguingly, there is the least presence of coalition troops. It’s stable. It’s secure. It’s flourishing. Once it makes those oil deals, it will become stronger. Turks see a Kurdistan emerging, and Mr. Barzani has said that they should get used to the idea of an independent Kurdistan — even though the Iraqi Kurdish leadership has admitted they are not yet ready for independence.

If the Bush administration’s goal is to keep Iraq intact, the steps it is taking show the opposite. The central Iraqi government is getting weaker every day. People are concerned about the local politics based on ethnicity and sectarianism. In the meantime, the United States sees Turkey as a violator of the Kurds’ human rights. “Turkey’s relations with the Kurdish Regional Government are terribly important,” Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told me in a recent interview. “[The] question for Turkey is what way is best for building the confidence between Turkey and Iraq as a whole, and Turkey and the regional government in the north.”

Truth may be helpful. On July 4, 2003, U.S. forces captured 11 Turkish Special Forces in Suleimania, Iraq, arresting them, handcuffing them and putting bags over their heads. The official U.S. story was that there was reliable intelligence that Turkish troops were preparing to assassinate the governor of Kirkuk. The Turkish side flatly denies the allegation. Asked about the arrest, Mr. England responded, “People may try to make issues of past… What’s relevant is the situation exists today. And the impression I have today is that it’s a strong relationship.”

That’s good news for Turkey, which has a lot to gain from the relationship. The ethnic politics of the war in Iraq and U.S. reluctance to give a clear signal to the separatist Kurdish terrorists in Northern Iraq, however, complicate the situation. No one with common sense thinks the PKK problem can be solved only through military means — just as fighting against terrorists with solely military force won’t solve the problem.

Within the last week, two prominent Turkish newspapers re-opened the question of what happened in Suleimania. People continue to demand answers, even acknowledging that the Turkish side could be at fault. Turkish commanders who are involved in the incident are all retired. The U.S. commanders are all promoted to higher positions. “This does not prove anything,” a prominent Turkish official told me. “Turkey was at no time at fault on that incident.” According to Radikal newspaper, “The Suleimania incident assured that the Turkish forces in the region, who used to make operations against the PKK targets, accept the authority of the U.S. forces. If Turkish security forces got involved… without the authorization of their superiors in Ankara… the Turkish people have the right to know the truth. If the truth is shared by the people, it will prevent similar incidents from taking place in the future.” Yet because U.S. officials have been silent, there is no resolution.

That incident played a major role in lowering public opinion toward the United States among the Turkish people. It dropped to at an all-time low of 7 percent. Therefore, I ask the question — again.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.

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