There are few areas in the world more entangled in historical deceit and betrayal than northern Iraq, where the British, the Ottomans, and the Americans have played a deadly game of political chess at the expense of the local Kurds. And now, because of a volatile brew of internal Iraqi and Turkish politics, coupled with the Bush administration’s clandestine war to destabilize and overthrow the Iranian government, the region threatens to explode into a full-scale regional war.

A series of bombings and attacks over the past year in Turkey touched off the current crisis. The Turks attribute the violence to the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which fought a bitter war against the Turks from 1984 through the 1990s. Ankara’s campaign to repress its Kurdish population during that period ended up killing some 35,000 people, destroying 3,000 villages, and forcibly relocating between 500,000 and 2 million Kurds. The Kurds make up about 20% of Turkey and Iraq and have a significant presence in Syria and Iran. With a population of between 25 and 30 million, the Kurds represent one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a country, a status that has long aggrieved them.

In May, the Turks declared martial law in three provinces that border Iraq. They massed troops, armor, and artillery, and threatened to invade if the United States and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not suppress the PKK. It looked like a conflict simply between the Turkish government and the Kurdish separatists. But things are never quite what they appear in northern Iraq.

Independent Kurdistan?

While the Turks are indeed concerned about the activities of the PKK, Ankara’s real agenda is to block any possibility of an independent Kurdish nation on its border. The Turkish Army is also whipping up nationalism in an effort to influence the outcome of the July 22 Turkish elections.

Turkey is deeply worried that an upcoming plebiscite in Kirkuk could make the oil-rich city, which the Kurds claim as their capital, a part of Kurdistan. Ankara fears that if Kirkuk joins Kurdistan, the Kurds will obtain the economic base they need to build a Kurdish state, which will, in turn, stir up Turkey’s restive Kurds to demand independence or autonomy. The Turks charge that the Kurds are trying to influence the outcome of the plebiscite by driving 200,000 Turkomen and Arabs out of the city, and moving in 600,000 Kurds. This would reverse the 1980s population shift when Saddam Hussein forced many Kurds out of Kirkuk, moving in Arab families to take their place. To keep the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as an ally, the Maliki government is backing the plebiscite and supporting a plan to remove 12,000 Arab families from Kirkuk and send them back to their original homes in central and southern Iraq.

Ankara blames the United States for ignoring the issue of Kirkuk and turning a blind eye to the PKK. “It is widely acknowledged,” says Syrian historian and journalist Sami Moubayed, “that the PKK cannot operate out of northern Iraq without the full blessing of Maliki, [Iraqi] President Jalal Talabani (a Kurd) and the United States.”

Attacking Iran

Rather than suppressing the PKK, the United States is using its offshoot, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PEJAK), to attack Iran. According to a Financial Times investigation last year, U.S. Marines are working with Iranian minorities to see if “Iran would be prone to violent fragmentation along the same kind of fault lines that are splitting Iraq.”

Farsi speakers dominate Iran, but they make up only a slim majority of the country. The rest of the population consists of Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, and Baluchs. The United States is also supporting a violent Baluch group, the Jundallah, which killed 11 Revolutionary Guard this past February in southern Iran.

“I think everybody in the region knows that there is a proxy war already afoot, with the United States supporting anti-Iranian elements in the region as well as opposition groups in Iran,” says Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh says that PRJAK is also receiving help from Israel, and that there are some 1,200 Israeli intelligence agents in northern Iraq. According to Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli expert on the Kurds, Israel is using the Kurdish areas of Iraq “to undermine Iran’s influence” and “the Iranian government itself.”

PKK’s Usefulness

The Islamacist Maliki government, with its ties to extremist Shiite militias and Iran, is no friend of the secular and socialist-minded PKK. But Maliki needs Kurdish support in his battle with former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose coalition of former Baathists, Sunnis, secular Shiites, and disgruntled Kurds that has designs on bringing down Maliki’s government. And while the current Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) — a coalition of the formerly warring Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party — has no great love for the PKK, the organization is tough and battle-hardened and has become an invaluable ally against a rising tide of Islamicism in the Kurdish region.

The United States is hoping the KRG will rein in the PKK. One anonymous Iraqi official told The New York Sun, “The Americans want the Kurds to make their lives easier. They need the Kurdish government to show they are willing to tackle terrorism in the north… maybe alert Turkey of a threat, act on intelligence, arrest some people, make an effort.”

However, the KRG has a problem with a growing wave of Islamicism in Kurdistan. The PKK is strongly secular—it was formerly the Kurdish Communist Party—and, in a fight with Islamic extremists it would be an invaluable ally. On top of which, the PKK is widely respected for its long struggle against the Turks, and if the KRG were to turn against the PKK it might not go down well with the average Kurd. Even if the KRG reins in the PKK, it might not be enough for Ankara, because Turkey wants to roll back any movement that would create an independent Kurdistan.

But that genie is already out of the lamp. The well-ordered and relatively peaceful Kurdish region has a working parliament, several universities, and Kurdish language radio and television. It has essentially been a functioning country since 1992 when the Americans and British established a “no fly” zone over the area following the end of Gulf War I.

Whatever the Turks might want, Kurdistan is already a reality.

Inside Turkey

The current crisis is also a reflection of Turkey’s internal politics. Beating the anti-Kurdish drum is part of the Turkish army’s strategy to whip up nationalism in order to weaken the religious government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the July elections.

The major danger is that the tension between Turks and Kurds could quickly get out of hand. For the past few weeks the Turkish Army has been shelling Kurdish villages in Iraq and sending small units across the border. A miscalculation by either side could quickly escalate, which is exactly what the United States fears.

“Fighting between Turks and Kurds in Iraq could spread to Turkey itself,” says Henri J. Barkey, chair of international relations at Lehigh University and widely considered to be the top U.S.-Turkish scholar. This, he said, could lead to “a severe rupture in U.S.-Turkish relations” and “deal a fatal blow” to U.S. efforts in Iraq.

Northern Iraq has always been a complicated place, but the U.S. war has sharpened the tensions that have plagued it for over a century. Now those tensions have pushed the region to the brink of chaos.

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus ( columnist.

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