USA seeks help in Iraq

«They (the Americans) cannot handle postwar Iraq,» a senior Turkish general said at the height of tension between Ankara and Washington. «They will need us there… sooner rather than later.» Last week, the visit of two congressional delegations to the Turkish capital confirmed the prophecy. In Iraq, every passing hour adds to American nightmares. With the presidential election approaching next year, President George W. Bush’s prestige is seriously at stake as Washington’s foes expand their drive to spread chaos in Iraq. The prospect of Iraq descending into anarchy of Afghan or Somali dimensions has forced Mr Bush’s men to seek comrades-in-arms instead of pouring in more troops and treasure. That turned American eyes to Ankara once again. Understandably, Mr Bush is considering voters who worry about the perils and costs of Vietnam-style attrition. Apart from mounting daily assaults on US troops, gunmen are attacking Iraqis employed by the US-led administration. Saboteurs are striking at oil, water and power installations. In addition, the truck bombing that killed 20 people, including UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, last week, along with a similar attack on the Jordanian Embassy earlier this month, has drastically widened the circle of targets of violence. But violence in Iraq is not all about terror. Ethnic clashes between Kurds and Turkmen in the north are more worrying than any other violence. Last Friday, Kirkuk’s largely Kurdish police force opened fire on Turkmen who had taken to the streets to protest the pillaging of a religious shrine. On Saturday night, rocket-propelled grenades were fired at statues of two Turkmen heroes, further increasing the tensions. Clashes at the weekend left more than 10 Turkmen dead. Though a fragile peace was later restored, the incidents have provoked enough nationalist sentiment that may trigger more violence in an area overly vulnerable to ethnic confrontation. But who benefits if Kirkuk blows up? There are nationalist Kurds who have not digested the idea that a strong historical Turkmen presence in the oil-rich Kirkuk disqualifies the city as a Kurdish bastion. Also, pro-Saddam groups see Kirkuk as the soft underbelly of northern Iraq and calculate that a civil war there will give the Americans very serious headaches. It was no coincidence that ethnic violence erupted in northern Iraq at a time when Ankara is increasingly favorable to the idea of sending peacekeepers to Iraq to lend the Americans a hand. That is, obviously, bad news for the Kurds for two reasons. First, a US-Turkish coalition within a stability mission in Iraq may help restore shattered ties between formerly strategic partners. And, secondly, a large Turkish military presence in Iraq, though confined to the west and north of Baghdad, will change the strategic/military balance in the whole of postwar Iraq – against the Kurds. The incidents in Kirkuk will inevitably change Turkish public opinion, which does not favor sending troops to Iraq (according to various polls, 60-70 percent of Turks oppose the idea). More and more Turks will tend to believe that sending troops would be in Turkey’s best national security interests at a time when their ethnic kin, the Turkmen, are suffering Kurdish violence. In Ankara, there is already an understanding between the government and an otherwise hostile military over the need to send troops. Fragmented opinion a month before has swiftly turned into almost monolithic agreement on sending 10,000 to 15,000 troops into central Iraq – and under Turkish command. Turkey’s top government and military leaders agreed at last week’s critical meeting of the powerful National Security Council that re-establishing order in Iraq was one of their priorities. However, they delayed a formal decision on sending peacekeepers, possibly to wait for a UN resolution on a multinational task force. That turns all eyes to September’s UN Security Council meeting. The dominant policy-making mind-set in Ankara is in favor of sending troops to Iraq. Advocates of the plan cite «national interest deliberations.» They also calculate that casualties would be tolerably small, thanks to a common religious base – Turkish peacekeepers would be deployed in mostly Sunni-populated areas. But its opponents warn of the risk of casualties in a country ruled by the Ottoman Empire for about 400 years until World War I. They think some Sunni Iraqis may have bitter memories of Ottoman rule. In Washington, the bigwigs tend to understand that invading Iraq was the simplest part of the game. Nation-building, the more challenging task, is failing. Hence the need for a Turkish hand. In Ankara, the Americans will this time find a leadership willing to lend a hand – and win American hearts.