Author:Scott, Roddy

Roddy Scott reports from the Iraqi/Turkish border on the latest developments in the area where an almost total media blackout remains in place.

Baghdad is quietly fuming. Teheran is concerned, and Damascus is seething with rage. The common denominator for all three capitals is the ongoing presence of Turkish troops in northern Iraq. Eighteen months after Ankara launched its biggest ever operation against Turkish Kurd rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Iraqi Kurdistan Turkish troops remain entrenched in the autonomous enclave.

In May of 1997 as many as 30,000 Turkish troops entered northern Iraq hunting the 4,000 PKK guerrillas fighting for Kurdish autonomy in south eastern Turkey, based in the mountainous border region. Unlike past invasions of the region though, it was conducted under a rigorously enforced media blackout; a blackout that continues to be enforced on the region.

As The Middle East goes to press Turkish troops continued to be based along the Iraqi-Turkish border in the Iraqi towns of Batova, Bekova and Kanni Massi with the troops and materiel crossing the border on an almost daily basis. The continued presence of Turkish troops in the region marks a sharp change in Ankara's policy to the Kurdish enclave. Previous incursions in 1992 and 1995 met not only with widespread international criticism, but also with sharp criticism from the Iraqi Kurdish factions which control the enclave.

International criticism, though, of Turkey's generals has been understandably muted by the blanket media blackout, which still allows only the sketchiest of details to emerge from the border region.

All of which will be of little concern to Turkey's generals who appear to have at last found a use for the Kurdish enclave. Previous incursions were notable not only for international criticism but also for the apparent inability to have any lasting impact on the PKK guerrillas, who would often slip away prior to the arrival of Turkish troops. It is this latter problem that Turkey's generals now appear determined to correct by keeping a permanent force in the region.

In all this Ankara has been aided by Massoud Barzaani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls the north-western part of the enclave. Control of northern Iraq has been split between the KDP and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani since the region fell outside Baghdad's control in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war.

In May of 1997, though, the KDP allied itself to Turkey in Ankara's fight against the PKK, playing a key role in enforcing the media blackout. Since then the KDP has been the backbone of Ankara's war against the PKK. Throughout the summer weeks there were daily reports of fierce fighting along the border with Turkey. From the north-western border town of Zakho through Badinan, Jebel Gare and Hajji Omran...

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