Breaking up Iraq

Posted: Mar 20, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday last week, a special envoy of the president of Iran traveled to Ankara for talks with Turkish leaders. What business did America's enemy (and "axis of evil" member) have with America's ally in NATO? The informed suspicion is that they were dividing up northern Iraq between them in advance of an anticipated U.S. military victory.

That runs against American war aims. On the next day after the Iranian-Turkish meeting, President Bush sent a letter to Ankara that, in reportedly blunt language, told the Turks to keep hands off Iraq. As he closed the door on diplomacy Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell stressed that Turkey had been informed of the U.S. commitment to maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity.

Actually, Iraq is an artificial country, created by the British Colonial Office after World War I by combining three provinces of the defeated Ottoman (Turkish) Empire containing antipathetic ethnic groups. Nevertheless, keeping Iraq intact and making it democratic is the first step in George W. Bush's Wilsonian design of transforming the Arab world. A threat from Iran and Turkey would begin multiple reconstruction difficulties even before the shooting ends.

The March 12 visit to Ankara was made by Iranian presidential envoy Behzad Nabavi to senior Turkish officials, including President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. Most news reports had Nabavi congratulating the Turks on their refusal to permit U.S. troops to invade Iraq from Turkey. Behind closed doors, however, it is believed they talked more about mutual opposition to the now autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq becoming an independent nation that reaches out to Kurds in Turkey and Iran.

"Cooperation between Tehran and Ankara," reports Stratfor, the private intelligence service, "would further erode the Kurds' limited chances for retaining autonomy and instead may set up de facto Turkish and Iranian rule in northern Iraq." That contradicts the conventional wisdom that Tehran dreads a Turkish incursion in Iraq.

On March 13, Bush sent his letter, described as "harsh" by the Turkish press, to Turkey's newly elected Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan. While those accounts depicted Bush as mainly interested in gaining access to Turkey for the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, American sources say the president was really pressing a hands-off-Iraq message on Turkey. On Monday, Powell went out of his way to say the U.S. government has "assured the Turks that in anything the future might hold, we are committed to the territorial integrity of Iraq."

Bush aide Zalmay Khalilzad was sent to Ankara this week to negotiate. Actually, it was too late to use Turkey as an invasion base. Under discussion was the unspoken Turkish desire to send troops into Iraq. Much as Bush desires a "coalition of the willing," he does not want Turkey's army in Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region. U.S. Special Forces operatives, slipped into Iraq, are openly working with Kurdish militia.

Stratfor reports that Turkey has already moved 7,000 troops into that region, with several thousand more on the Turkish side of the border. It also indicates Iranian troops are working with their Kurdish allies. The Turkish-Iranian partnership, though odd on its face, is possible and points up the complexity of dealing with "post-war" Iraq's problems.

Such problems, Senate Foreign Relations Committee members privately complain, have been taken out of the State Department's jurisdiction and given to the Defense Department. They suggest Gen. Tommy Franks has his hands full as theater commander-in-chief without having to plan his designated assignment as a MacArthur-like proconsul in occupied Baghdad.

Sen. Richard Lugar, the Republican chairman of Foreign Relations, recently convened hearings on whether anybody in the administration is doing such planning. Government witnesses were disappointing -- especially Douglas Feith, under secretary of Defense and the heavy thinker at the Pentagon. Several senators asked about the fate of the Kurds, but he did not give much of an answer.

"It is very hard," said Feith at one point, "to tell you precisely what we plan to do because so much . . . depends on how events unfold." He hastened to add, however, that "a great deal of thought has been given" to the problems posed by the senators.

Hopefully, that includes countering an international power grab in northern Iraq.