Turkey's military chief said Friday that Ankara will delay a decision on whether to launch a cross-border offensive into Iraq until after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets here with President Bush 10 days from now. "We will wait for his return," Gen. Yasar Buyukanit told reporters in the Turkish capital.
In Washington, officials were relieved that an attack does not appear imminent. But they were also discouraged by the statement, which leaves the Bush administration precisely where it does not want to be: in the middle of a confrontation between its troubled client state in Baghdad and a key NATO ally.
Since cross-border attacks this month by Iraq-based militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) left 40 Turkish soldiers, police and civilians dead, the Bush administration has sought to persuade Ankara and Baghdad to resolve their differences peacefully and directly.
"We think this is an opportunity for the Iraqis and the Turks to work together," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress Thursday. So far, however, it is an opportunity that neither side appears eager to take. While administration officials enthusiastically called attention to a meeting of Iraqi and Turkish defense and security officials in Ankara Friday, Turkish officials said that no progress had been made.
"Everyone there is guilty," Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said in a Turkish television interview, referring to the PKK, which both the United States and Europe have labeled a terrorist organization. Ankara has given Baghdad a list of names of PKK members, he said, "and we want all of them to be handed over." U.S. officials have estimated the PKK to number about 4,000 fighters, most of them based in remote camps close to the border.
Turkey's movement of nearly 100,000 troops to the Iraqi border has suddenly focused attention on an issue long relegated to the category of "too hard," a senior administration official said.
Retired Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, a former NATO commander Bush appointed last year as his special envoy to work on the issue, left the job recently because of what several sources described as his frustration at the administration's failure to devote serious attention to the problem. Ralston, vice chairman of an international consulting firm led by former defense secretary William S. Cohen, did not return several calls for comment.
"He never said he was leaving in protest," another administration official said of Ralston, adding that the one-year appointment had expired. "But I guess you could speculate that if things were really going gangbusters, maybe he would have stayed on."
Until the recent escalation, U.S. action was largely paralyzed by divisions between Pentagon and State Department officials responsible for the Middle East &
and Iraq &
and those charged with looking after European and NATO interests, including Turkey.
"If you're a Turkey hand, you say, 'For crying out loud, why isn't Centcom taking action?'" the senior official said, referring to the military's Central Command, which oversees the Middle East. Turkey has repeatedly and loudly asked the same question, demanding that U.S. forces turn some of their considerable firepower in Iraq against the PKK camps.
"If you're looking at it from Iraq, you say, 'Hey, we've got our hands full; let's not stir the nest up.'" Iraq's Kurdish north, where the U.S.-allied leadership has long looked away from the renegade PKK's efforts to ignite rebellion among Turkey's 12 million Kurds, has been one of the few relatively peaceful places in the country.
The problem, this official said, is balancing the possible alienation of Iraqi Kurds with the threat of Turkish movement across the border. The latter risk, he said, "right now, is pretty high."
In recent weeks, U.S. officials in Baghdad, Ankara and Washington have worked feverishly to bring the two sides toward a rapprochement that keeps the United States out of the cross hairs. According to several officials, the administration has overcome its earlier reluctance to involve the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in the Turkish problem and task it with exerting greater pressure on Iraqi officials.
U.S. diplomats have reminded Iraqi officials that Turkey &
in addition to being the entry point for a major part of the U.S. military supply route into Iraq &
is one of their country's prime trading partners. The administration particularly wants Baghdad and Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government to begin sharing intelligence with Turkey on the location of PKK camps.
Early this week, U.S. officials in Baghdad persuaded the regional government to issue a statement condemning the PKK, although they expressed some disappointment that it was signed by a spokesman rather than by regional President Masoud Barzani. On Tuesday, after telephone calls to Ankara by Bush and Rice, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan flew to Baghdad for crisis talks and received promises that Iraq would take action against PKK activities and funding.
But six hours of talks in Ankara Friday produced no visible movement. "We do not expect much from this delegation," Erdogan said of the Iraqi visitors as he returned from a meeting in Romania.
In another blow to the effort that reflected the deep animosities any negotiators will have to overcome, Barzani told al-Arabiya television Friday that Turkey's real aim is to "stop or hinder the development of the Kurdish region." As for the PKK, Barzani said, it has "no site in any city, area or village in the Kurdish region ... the PKK is present inside Turkey."
Rice has scheduled a stop in Ankara next week on her way to a long-planned ministerial meeting on Iraq scheduled to be held in Istanbul Nov. 2-3. The Istanbul meeting follows one held in Egypt last spring, where senior officials from the region and around the world gathered to pledge their assistance to Iraqi reconstruction and democracy. Now, however, U.S. officials concede that the Istanbul meeting is likely to be dominated by the border conflict.
"We have to put something on the table," a senior administration official said. "We want to come out of Istanbul with at least a political framework for resolving" the dispute.
As it struggles to keep interfering neighbors Iran and Syria at bay, the U.S. military in Iraq is adamantly opposed to opening another border front. Asked Friday what he was planning to do about the Kurdish militants, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq responded, "Absolutely nothing."
"I have not been given any requirements or any responsibility for that," Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon said in a videoconference with Pentagon reporters. Asked why Turkey considers the PKK such a serious threat, Mixon replied: "I have no idea. You'll have to ask Turkey."
Turkey pulls U.S. into decision on Kurds