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 Turkey, Iran attacks test Iraqi Kurdistan 

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Turkey, Iran attacks test Iraqi Kurdistan  29.8.2011    
By Patrick Markey - Reuters







August 29, 2011

BAMARNE, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', U.S. troops may be leaving Iraq, but in northern Iraqi Kurdistan another NATO power is keeping its outposts and flexing its muscle, dispatching warplanes over the Iraqi border to bomb separatist rebels.

Dotted along the parched Kurdish mountains inside Iraq, Turkey has 1,300 soldiers in a handful of observation posts set up in the 1990s with Iraqi consent as Kurdish PKK rebels launched attacks in their fight for self-rule.

Turkey has attacked PKK bases in Iraq for years. But its air strikes and recent Iranian shelling across the border are fanning Iraqi concerns over its neighbours vying for influence in the oil-endowed region once U.S. troops leave in 2011.   
Ties between Erbil, the Kurdistan capital, and Ankara have frayed since a Turkish air strike killed a family of seven on last week, according to Iraqi officials, prompting Baghdad to summon the Turkish envoy and Kurdish lawmakers to demand that Turkey should close its bases.

"We have seen escalations of heavy bombardments across the border, air attacks, for targets which don't merit that, so therefore one can conclude that it may have something to do with post-2011," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters.

Managing their neighbours is a delicate task for Iraqi Kurdish leaders who must weigh incursions by Ankara and Tehran against Turkish investment that has helped make semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan the most stable part of a still violent country.

Iraq says Turkey has 1,300 soldiers in towns like Bamarne, where blast-wall blocks surrounded an outpost and tanks, trucks and armored vehicles were parked inside during a recent visit. Guards kept watch on the valley from perimeter towers.

Little stirred on the hillside Turkish observation post near Sheladeze at the foot of Iraqi Kurdish mountains. Outside a tank sat idly on a spot overlooking the road into town,www.ekurd.netwhere Kurdish men haggled over fruit prices at a market square.

"No-one asked us whether those troops can be here. It's like you staying in my house as a guest but you really hate me and attack me," said Abdullah Ganju, a local government worker sitting on the side of the market.

SEMI-AUTONOMOUS, SAFE HAVEN

Muslim Turkey, a long-time member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a rising diplomatic and political power in the Middle East where its businesses are aggressively seeking opportunities. But its raids on Iraq are unlikely to reassure Arab nations who may be uncomfortable with Turkey's assertive policy, said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst.

Turkey has made no official statement on the civilian deaths but Turkish diplomatic sources say the claims are rebel propaganda. Ankara says the strikes on PKK fighters sheltering in Iraq have killed around 100 PKK rebels. The PKK dismissed those claims, saying only a few fighters were killed.

Ankara launched air strikes in retaliation for assaults in Turkey by the PKK, who have killed 40 Turkish troops over the past month in their 27-year-old fight for Kurd self-rule.

Yet Iraqi Kurdistan has already become a safe haven since it was established after the first Gulf war. Turkish investors pump cash into hotels and shopping malls in Erbil while Spanish and British oil firms sign deals to work in a region that may have up to 45 billion barrels in crude reserves.

"Our region has been developed and has seen progress because our relationship with Turkey has developed," Erbil Governor Nawzad Hadi told Reuters. "We have to look at reality."

Eight years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq still battles a stubborn al Qaeda-tied Sunni insurgency and Shi'ite militias. Violence has dropped off sharply but bombings and assassinations hit almost daily.

American and Iraqi officials are in talks about whether some U.S. troops will stay in Iraq as trainers, but the withdrawal is going as scheduled for now when a security pact ends in 2011.

BIGGER PRIZE

Iraqi Kurdistan has long played regional real politic as its ruling parties, the PUK and KDP, have been aligned at times with Tehran and Ankara. The PKK were once openly backed by Syria.

Erbil's ties with the central Iraqi government are also often strained by disputes between Kurds and Iraqi Arabs over territory and oil rights.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in March became the first Turkish leader to visit the Kurdish region whose economic boom has been funded by its share of Iraq's oil wealth.

"The Iraqi Kurds have good cooperation with the Turks. There is a bigger prize here than the PKK," said one Western diplomat. "It's a nuanced balance and they are playing it well."

Border incidents are now also easier to resolve with a joint U.S., Iraqi and Turkish coordination office in Erbil.

But with Syria's border closed because of turmoil against President Bashar al-Assad, Baghdad worries foreign fighters may instead use Kurdistan's porous border and PKK areas for shelter and to enter Iraq, an Iraqi security source said.

Iraqi Kurdish officials acknowledge they are unable to control the PKK in the remote Qandil mountains and say neighbours must resolve conflicts with their own Kurdish minorities through negotiations.

For Iraqi Kurds living on the border, where hundreds of farmers fled to camps to evade Iranian shells and now Turkish air raids, talks not bombs will end Ankara's war with the PKK.

"Turkey's policy looks contradictory," said Abu Baker Wasi, a local Kurdish official in Rania near where the seven civilians were killed. "They make these large investments and then they attack our villages."
 

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