Staking a claim: for many Turks watching the TV pictures of armed Kurdish irregulars surging through the streets of Kirkuk in early April, it was as if they were seeing one of their darkest nightmares come to life.

Author:Gorvett, Jon
Position:Current Affairs
 
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While the jolting, videophone images of peshmergas waving Kalashnikovs, smashing statues of Saddam Hussein and carting off wagonloads of booty might elsewhere have been a cause for rejoicing, for the Turkish authorities, they were a causus beli.

Since long before the US-led invasion of Iraq took place, the Turkish government and its military and civil leaders have been warning anyone who would listen that Ankara could not tolerate the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq, nor any Kurdish takeover in the two major cities of the region, and in particular Kirktik.

Yet, on 10 April, Forces from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, did precisely that.

Only a few days before, US Secretary of State Colin Powell had visited Ankara and promised Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gui that any takeover of the two cities would be managed under US military control. Yet, as the first pictures came on Turkish TV screens, there was not a single US soldier in sight.

As The Middle East went to print, US officials were working towards a solution. Washington has reassured the Turks that, despite appearances, all was just had been promised and would remain that way. Many Kurdish troops withdrew from the town, while Turkish military observers were allowed in to allay further anxiety in Ankara. Meanwhile, a US regiment, the 173rd, was posted in Kirkuk.

Whatever the eventual outcome, the events of recent weeks have revealed the high sensitivity that exists in Turkey towards Northern Iraq, and in particular to the Kurds that live there.

"The war against Iraq was hugely unpopular here," the respected columnist and broadcaster Haluk Sahin told The Middle East, "yet a Turkish military intervention into Northern Iraq would get public support."

Ankara's policy towards Northern Iraq has long been shaped by events within Turkey itself--and in particular the long conflict over the rights of the ethnic Kurdish minority within the unitary Turkish state.

Some 12m ethnic Kurds are thought to live within Turkey's borders--though no official figures exist--with the bulk of the population living in the provinces of Turkey's southeast, the region bordering Northern Iraq.

For many years, these ethnic Kurds were denied elementary rights within the Turkish state. Uprisings occurred, with the most recent beginning in the mid-1980s. This was led by the then-Marxist Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK)...

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