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Turkey and Iraq - Update on 19 January 2007

As the sectarian violence in Iraq becomes akin to civil war, the US and UK have reviewed their respective strategies. While President Bush has made a new commitment to 'victory' in Iraq, Tony Blair and the British have taken a more pessimistic view of the future and have begun to formulate alternative political alignments. The possibilty of the partition of Iraq is now being discussed, with Turkey assuming responsibility for Northern Iraq which is mainly occupied by Kurds. This is contrary to the US commitment to grantng the Kurds greater autonomy by means of a referendum.

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The manner of the execution of Saddam Hussein on 30 December 2006 in the hands of the civil authorities in Iraq has seriously undermined both British and US credibility in the region. Video clips of the execution have transformed Saddam's image in the Muslim world. He has changed overnight from being a universally recognised pariah and monster into a martyr for Islam. His ‘trial' in Iraq was always considered dubious and the taunts, heckling and evident glee portrayed by his executioners have met with universal condemnation. Whatever his past crimes, and they were many, Saddam faced death with dignity and calm resolve. It is most unfortunate that Tony Blair was enjoying a free holiday with a Bee Gee in Florida at the time of the execution. It is more unfortunate that Muslims will hold both the UK and USA responsible for the negligence of Messrs Blair and Bush and their personal culpability in the manner of Saddam's trail and death.

Both the US and UK military and intelligence services have been reviewing the military and political options. George Bush has reiterated his commitment to ‘victory' in Iraq and will deploy some 22,000 additional troops, thus bring the total number to around 150,000. He proposes to split Baghdad into sectors or partitions and to expel armed factions from each sector in turn. Sanitised sectors will then be cordoned off and these gated communities will be kept safe by the indigenous Iraqi army.

This policy has eerie overtones of the policy of ‘safe hamlets' from the Vietnam war. The ‘safe hamlets' contained Vietcong sympathisers from the outset and were fertile recruiting grounds for the insurgents. Similarly, the identification and elimination of troublemakers in Iraq is extremely difficult. The problem is not only that of armed insurgents but the mutual fear and hatred of the Sunni and Shi'ite population groups. As evidenced by the treatment of Saddam Hussein, the civil authorities in Iraq are a sham and the Iraqi army is riddled with the same prejudices which split the general population. More importantly they have little appetite for confrontation. The likely success of the US initiative remains at best unclear. However, the US public will expect significant success within, say, 6 months.

During recent weeks, the rhetoric employed by Washington has moved from ‘sectarian violence' to ‘civil war'. Sectarian violence is a relatively well understood in both the US and UK. The partition of Yugoslavia was presented in these terms and the ‘troubles' in Northern Ireland fall into this category. The effective prevention of sectarian violence is usually based on classic police work and the collection of intelligence. Other essential ingredients for success are the co-operation and support of the general populace and a just and effective court system. The court system in Iraq is arbitrary and corrupt and this is exemplified in many instances in addition to the execution of Saddam Hussein. The initial enthusiasm which greeted US troops from the general population has now disappeared and the Iraqi public is suspicious if not actively hostile to the multinational force. Against this background, there are clearly major challenges for any police force committed to the eradication of sectarian violence. Unfortunately the occupying forces are infantry soldiers and they have received a very different type of training.

However, the situation in Iraq has deteriorated to the extent that there is no credible civic administration in place and the populace have tended to ally themselves to either the Sunni or Shi'ite militias as these groups have more power than the government forces. The Sunnis are strongest in the west, while the Shi'ites control the south and the Iran / Iraq border. Within Baghdad there is a clear movement of people away from what were traditionally mixed neighbourhoods into homogeneous Sunni or Shi'ite areas.

If Iraq has generated into Civil War, the question arises as to which side should the coalition forces back. If one takes the view that it is no longer possible to re-establish peace between the warring factions, US & UK policy may be to identify and back the winning side. Almost all commentators predict that the Shi'ites are the likely victors, due to their numerical superiority and the significant support of Shi'ite Iran. However, it is unlikely that other regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, will stand by and allow such an outcome.

Alternatively, it is being seriously proposed by some US observers that the US and UK should exit Iraq immediately and bequeath to the inhabitants and their regional neighbours the task of resolving the conflict. While this policy has the attraction of bringing troops back home at an early date, it ignores the fact that the current tragedy of Iraq was directly caused by the actions of the US and UK governments and that we therefore have a moral duty towards the citizens of that country. In addition, the vast oil reserves in the region and the importance of these reserves for western economies will be persuasive for those persons who belittle moral obligations.

Tony Blair and his British advisors have quietly distanced themselves from this latest US policy. They are already looking beyond the horizon and pin little hope on the latest Bush plan for Iraq. If the time span for a revitalisation of support for George Bush regarding Iraq is short, then Tony Blair is facing a similar time constraint. Mr Blair is committed to retiring from the post of British Prime Minister during 2007 and is therefore under immense pressure to extricate the UK from Iraq and to secure a settlement which has a reasonable prospect of bringing peace and stability to the region.

While most commentators focus on the Sunni / Shi'ite rift, UK policy advisors have been assisting Tony Blair to formulate a policy which will effectively lead to the partition of Iraq. The background to Mr Blair's strategy lies in the longstanding and cordial relationship between the UK and Turkey. These ties have been greatly strengthened since 2004 when the UK became a vocal advocate of improving the international status of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, a state which is only formally recognised by Turkey. This relationship has also been nurtured by Cherie Blair's representation in 2006 of a UK couple who were being sued in the UK by a dispossessed person from the Greek Republic of (South) Cyprus. In addition, the UK has been Turkey's staunchest ally in the difficult EU accession negotiations. There have however, been setbacks to this relationship. Tony Blair was persistently tried to persuade Turkey to commit troops to Iraq, so far, without success.

Any partition of Iraq would need to take account of the distribution of the various ethnic and religious groups. As previously stated the Sunnis are prominent in the west and the Shi'ites in the south and east. However, the other significant group is that of the Kurds. The Kurds effectively control the north and were savagely repressed by Saddam Hussein. There are also sizable Kurdish populations in Southern Turkey, Syria and Iraq.


While US policy has been generally viewed as favourable towards the Kurds and their desire for an autonomous administration or even a secessionist state, the UK has been sympathetic towards Turkish concerns for security and the suppression of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) is considered a terrorist organisation. As Mr Blair's overtures for Turkey to send troops to Iraq have not borne fruit, he is now proposing that Turkey effectively occupies the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. In return, Turkey will be expected to contribute to the pacification of Iraq. From a Turkish perspective, the opportunity to extend its sphere of influence to Mosel and Kirkuk in North Iraq is enticing. It will be given a free hand to search for and destroy PKK fighters who reside in Iraq and mount terrorist attacks in Turkey. In addition, Turkey would have control of the valuable oilfields of the Kirkuk region and the pipeline linking Kirkuk to Bayji and then north to Turkey.  

However, the US has recently signalled support for the referendum on Kirkuk to go ahead. Under Iraq's new constitution, a local referendum is to be held during 2007 to determine whether Kirkuk should join the Kurdistan regional confederacy (the united administration of Irbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniya provinces). Because of its oil wealth, the Kurds covet the city and want it to become their regional capital. Due to the impending referendum, there are reports of significant numbers of Kurds flocking into Kirkuk in order to become eligible to vote on this issue. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on 16 January, warned Iraqi Kurdish groups against trying to seize control of Kirkuk. He said Turkey would not stand by amid growing ethnic tensions, by which he meant persecution of Turks and other minorities in the Kirkuk region. This speech prompted accusations of interference by Iraqi Kurds.

partition of iraq

Although the Blair proposal is extremely ambitious and contentious, the current disastrous situation does call for bold measures. This would be the first step in a larger plan, whereby the Shi'ite regions of south and east Iraq would link to Iran, a country with which the UK, unlike the US, has sought to develop good relations. This would then leave the Sunni area of western Iraq which could either orient towards Sunni dominated Syria or possibly become the remnant of Iraq with pan Arab backing.  

Les Hardy, 18 January 2007

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