ARBIL–IRAQ (Reuters)–Iraqi Kurds have vowed to fight Turkish troops that come into their self-governing area–especially if they come without US allies.
Sami Abdul-Rahman–deputy premier of the Kurdistan regional government–told Reuters late on Wednesday Kurds were extremely worried by Turkey’s stated aim of sending troops if there is a war and would resist "military occupation” by any means.
Turkey says its troops would prevent a flood of Kurdish refugees entering Turkey–if there is a US-led war to overthrow President Saddam Hussein–and to protect Kurdistan’s Turkmen minority–culturally and linguistically close to Turks.
Ankara also wants to stop any attempt to establish a Kurdish homeland–mindful of possible consequences among its own large Kurdish minority–although Iraq’s Kurds–a majority in the north–say they have no plans to do so.
Turkish troops would enter with US forces–but US plans for a second–northern front in Iraq are in question since Ankara’s parliament voted against letting 62,000 US troops use Turkish territory. A possible second vote might overturn this.
The refusal to allow US troops into Turkey has raised fears among Kurds that Turkish forces will come in alone.
"I am still very very worried and concerned,” Abdul-Rahman told Reuters over tea and fruit at his home in Arbil–the largest city in Kurdish-administered Iraq.
"Whichever way the Turks come–our people will resist them with all means at our disposal. Believe me–if we are faced with death or military occupation–the first would be lighter.”
He said it would complicate an anti-Saddam coalition if Kurds and Turks fought each other in the middle of a larger war.
"It would be worse if they came with the Americans. We don’t want to be seen to be fighting part of the coalition,” he said.
He added that Turkey has already said its troops will not fight the Iraqi army if it entered Iraq.
"So what are they coming for? To repress Kurds,” he said.
If fighting between Turks and Kurds erupted–Abdul-Rahman’said he did not believe neighboring countries would stand idly by–adding that it could lead to "a major regional conflict.”
Some analysts fear that if war breaks out–Kurdish forces could try to retake Kirkuk–the main center of northern Iraq’s oil industry and historically a Kurdish city–but from which thousands of Kurds have been expelled by Saddam.
This has raised fears that Turkey–through which Kirkuk’s oil is exported to world markets–could intervene–leading to fighting over the city and significant loss of oil production– Kirkuk produces around 800,000 barrels per day of crude oil.
Abdul-Rahman’said that although Kurds regarded Kirkuk as Kurdish–"there are no contingency plans for the Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) to try to liberate Kirkuk.”
But he warned that many locals were likely to be armed.
"From my grandfather’s day–I don’t remember our family not having guns in the house,” he said. Turkish Fears
While Kurds fear the worst–Turkey has been shaken by scenes of Iraqi Kurds burning the Turkish flag during a recent anti-Turkish protest in Arbil–which organizers say drew up to half a million people–film of which was widely broadcast in Turkey.
As mutual tensions rise–fears of a "war within a war” between Turks and Kurds are also growing in Ankara.
"If the Americans are absent from northern Iraq the danger of clashes between the two becomes greater,” one diplomat said. "Sooner or later the US troops will move up into northern Iraq and they will encounter Turkish troops. They would want that to be well coordinated and smooth.”
Professor Dogu Ergil of Turkey’s Tosam research institute said Ankara’s traditionally tough line on the Kurds made it hard to be flexible in the current emergency.
"Turkey looks on any development as a threat rather than an opportunity and that has stultified Turkey’s position,” he said.
If Ankara continues to deny access to US troops–parliament could pass a separate motion allowing Turkish troops to enter–or they could simply follow past procedures and send them in under "hot pursuit” procedures.