Truckers fear Iraq sanctions

IBRAHIM AL-KHALIL, Iraq – Turkish truck drivers, resting up after a long drive to ferry vast quantities of goods to northern Iraq, begged Ankara on Monday not to impose economic sanctions, saying it would hurt them more than the Kurds. «This could be the last time I travel to Iraq’s Kurdish region,» said trucker Mustafa Oglo sadly as he waited for his cargo of wood to be offloaded on the Iraqi side of the Ibrahim al-Khalil crossing with Turkey. «I have been working this road for more than 10 years,» said the 48-year-old Oglo. «There are hundreds of Turkish companies who want us to convey their products to Iraq,» he added. «We make good money out of our work but I don’t know what would happen to us if Turkey decided to close the border.» Last month, Ankara announced it would levy sanctions on northern Iraq because the regional administration had failed to crack down on Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels who have been fighting for self-rule in southeastern Turkey since 1984. The sanctions could include restricting trade to Iraqi Kurdistan and cutting off electricity supplies to the north of the country, local media said. «Trade movement must continue between the two countries,» said another trucker, 33-year-old Murad Ibrahim, sipping tea before making the 200 kilometer (125 mile) return journey from northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. «It is crazy that Turkey sacrifices all these commercial ventures due to the exaggerated PKK crisis,» added Ibrahim, who had brought across goods destined for the Iraqi Trade Ministry. «Turkey has got to think of us thousands of drivers. What will happen to us if they close this border crossing?» he asked, pointing to dozens of Turkish drivers in trucks loaded with iron, steel, wood, cement, cars, foodstuffs, medical goods and tools. «We convey everything you could imagine, from mineral water to cars,» said another driver, Toran Ali. «This border crossing is an important one because it is the safest. Even the Baghdad government prefers this one because trucks pass from one side to the other without coming under attack or being robbed,» added the 37-year-old Ali. A customs official told AFP that while cross-border traffic at Ibrahim al-Khalil had dropped significantly since the late 1990s, when up to 3,500 trucks would cross each day, it was still a busy frontier post. «Around 700 trucks enter Iraq each day carrying different kinds of goods,» said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Iraq is a lucrative market for Turkey and one of the few countries with which Ankara has a trade surplus. Turkish exports to Iraq totaled $1.7 billion (-1.2 billion) in the first eight months of this year and $2.5 billion during 2006, according to official figures. In the town of Zakho, 9 kilometers (5 miles) from the border, shops are crammed with Turkish products including foodstuffs, confectionery, clothes, perfumes, cosmetics, electrical appliances and household goods. Turkish companies such as Beko, Vestel and Arcelic are better known among Iraqi Kurds than other international brands. Hotels too are filled each night with Turkish truck drivers and many restaurants and fuel stations have put up signs in Turkish. The Kurdish administration’s director general for trade, Aziz Ibrahim, said 300 Turkish companies were engaged in business with northern Iraq. «They are building roads and bridges,» he said. «If Turkey imposed economic sanctions on the region, that would mean imposing sanctions against Iraq, because goods that come through the border are not meant only for Kurdistan but for the whole of Iraq.