So, what will happen if Turkey eventually strikes a deal with the United States to let it use Turkish bases? Once war starts, this deal could mean disaster for everyone involved.
Turkish bases are key to U.S. war plans, which rely on a two-front concept to split Saddam Hussein’s troops. After a massive aerial bombing campaign, the bulk of the U.S. army will invade from the south via Kuwait, while about 20,000 U.S. troops will invade northern Iraq from Turkey.
It’s what the U.S. wants to trade for those Turkish bases that could lead to disaster in Iraq. While the U.S. media has focused exclusively on billions in U.S. aid money promised for Turkey — $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loan guarantees, at last count — there are two other conditions that Turkey is insisting on that the U.S. seems likely to grant.
First, Turkey wants oil concessions in Northern Iraq. The Bush administration likes to pretend that this war is not about oil, but when it comes to negotiating with the one country, other than Kuwait, that the U.S. absolutely needs to have on board to make this war work, then oil is definitely part of the deal. And so is territory.
Two cities in the north of Iraq were, not so long ago, a part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire: Kirkuk and Mosul. Turkey has long coveted these cities and most of northern Iraq. There’s just one problem: the majority population in northern Iraq is Kurdish.
This presents a terrible problem: Turkey wants northern Iraq, but the Kurds also want northern Iraq as an autonomous republic, a Kurdish homeland. Turkey has spent the past decade fighting a guerrilla war against its own ethnic Kurdish population, exterminating whole villages and killing thousands of civilians in the process. If you were to ask a Kurd who is responsible for killing more of his compatriots — Saddam Hussein or the Turkish military — he’d be hard-pressed to give you a definitive answer.
The Kurds are force to reckon with. Estimates of armed Kurdish militiamen range from 70,000 to 130,000. Once the fighting starts, one of their goals will be to get control of key oil fields and maintain that control against all comers — not just Saddam Hussein’s forces, but also Turkish troops. Whoever controls the oil wells, controls northern Iraq. Although leading Iraqi Kurds currently disavow any plans to establish a Kurdish republic, the Kurdish militias are not united on this point. Indeed Kurdish groups represent a variety of political and religious leanings, from nationalist groups to fundamentalist muslim groups to Marxist ideology, and they occasionally fight each other over territory. During and after any war in Iraq, these groups will certainly work out their differences with bloodshed; but the invasion of a Turkish military might unite them against a common enemy.
The second condition that Turkey wants is for its army in northern Iraq to remain under its own control, and not the control of the U.S. command. Turkey has some troops in northern Iraq right now, and has occupied portions of northern Iraq since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. But once the fighting starts, Turkey is expected to send in a much bigger force, ostensibly (and ironically) to help the U.S. army deal with the large Kurdish refugee population that this “low-impact” war will create.
Kurds are deeply mistrustful of a military that has slaughtered so many Kurds in eastern Turkey. Kurdish militias have already warned that a Turkish invasion of Iraq will be meant with force. Said Hoshiyar Zebari, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party, one of the two main Kurdish groups in Iraq: “No one wants another fight, of course. But if there’s a forced incursion, done under the pretext of ‘I’m going to give you forced aid,’ then believe me there will be uncontrolled clashes.”
The Turkish military and Kurdish militias are not the only armies that the U.S. will have to worry about in Iraq. There are also armed groups along the border with Iran that have Iranian backing. These paramilitaries could pose a problem for U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians alike. In addition, when the fighting starts, Iran might invade Iraq’s border regions and make a grab for disputed territory in southern Iraq, under the pretext of restoring order and protecting its own territory. Iran has already warned the United States that any planes flying over its airspace will be fired upon. U.S. troops may meet the same fate.
Shiite groups in southern Iraq have also procured arms from both the U.S. and from Iran. Just as in northern Iraq, these groups are varied in their political leanings and loyalties, sometimes fighting Saddam’s troops, sometimes fighting each other. This, too, could create a problem for a U.S. invading force, particularly if Iranian troops or paramilitaries clash with the advancing U.S. forces.
It will be hard to tell friend from foe, particularly with the shockingly poor state of U.S. intelligence in Iraq. For example, the village of Khurmal, in northern Iraq, is a cinder-block town of about 7,500 Kurdish people. The whole village watched, clustered around a handful of TVs powered by a generator, as Colin Powell made his presentation to the UN. They waited for him to give evidence of Saddam’s crime in gassing the Kurds — after all, Khurmal itself suffered a mustard gas attack that killed many of its residents. Instead, they watched in horror as Powell presented a satellite photo of Khurmal and claimed that it was a terrorist training camp and poison factory run by Ansar al-Islam. In fact, Ansar al-Islam doesn’t control the village of Khurmal; Ansar’s base is in a village named Sarget, more than four miles away on the other side of a ridge. If any U.S. intelligence agents had questioned friendly Kurdish groups, they would have easily discovered this.
The people of Khurmal have been praying ever since that U.S. missiles won’t hit their town, but they don’t have much hope. With U.S. planes flying at 30,000 feet, piloted by boys on amphetamines, the bombs could land anywhere; a village could look like a terrorist camp, friendly Kurdish fighters could look like Saddam’s troops. The Kurds all over northern Iraq are praying, hoping the U.S. knows what it’s doing.
But the U.S. shows no sign of even being aware of any of these problems. Currently, the Bush administration is setting up another situation that could lead to disaster in Iraq, even if the war ends quickly. Since January, several thousand Iraqi exiles have been training at a base in Hungary to fulfill an unspecified role in a post-Saddam Iraq. Last week, the Pentagon finally disclosed what that role will be: to guard prison camps housing captured Iraqi troops. Most of the prisoners are expected to be Sunni Muslims who owed their allegiance to Saddam Hussein. Most of the guards will be Kurds and Shiite Muslims.
This arrangement is a set-up for the kind of ethnic bloodbaths seen in Bosnia, when militia groups of one ethnicity took control of towns and villages populated by other ethnic groups. Similarly, the Northern Alliance engaged in ethnic cleansing in northern Afghanistan cities both during and after the recent U.S. war, massacring minority Pashtuns.
The Bush administration claims to be pursuing this war in order to liberate the Iraqi people. But the extent of U.S. ignorance and indifference to the problems of the Iraqi people — even to the concerns of its own allies inside of Iraq — is monumental, and surely the best reason to avoid a war altogether.
My work has appeared on Alternet, Znet, the CounterPunch website, MotherJones.com and AntiWar.com. I am a co-editor and contributing writer for Eat The State!, a biweekly anti-authoritarian newspaper of political opinion, research and humor, based in Seattle, Washington. Eat the State! can be found online at http://www.eatthestate.org.