On 31 May, the chief of the Turkish Armed Forces General Staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, let it be understood that, in the even of cross-border operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq, his troops could well take it out on the Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan as well. Questioned by journalists following a press conference on the possibility of such an operation to dislodge the PKK activists from their camps on the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan, General Buyukanit recalled that the Army was in favour of such an incursion but that it was up to the government to take the decision. “The political authorities will determine whether, once they have entered (Iraqi Kurdistan) the action will only be conducted against the PKK or something will happen regarding Barzani”, he declared, referring to the president of the Kurdistan regional government, who has several times affirmed his opposition to such an intervention. “I had already, on 12 April, told Turkey and the world that we need this”, stated General Buyukanit, with reference to intervention in Iraq. “As soldiers we are ready, but all soldiers need an order”, he pointed out, before adding, in an apparent attack on the government: “However, I can’t make a written request for this, so what do they expect of me?”.
In the course of a visit to the European Parliament in Brussels on 8 May, President Massud Barzani warned Turkey that, for his part, he would not tolerate any threats. “Do we feel threatened by Turkey? There is no place for the language of threats today — only dialogue can be constructive. We are not threatening anyone but neither will we accept threats from anyone”, stated Mr. Barzani. He added that he “sympathised” with the claims of Kurds outside Iraq, their problems must be resolved “in accordance with the specific circumstances of each country” and “we do not encourage the recourse to violence”. He also called on Ankara to work towards a political solution to the problem of the PKK. This problem “cannot be resolved by military means” and “if Turkey continues to seek a military solution it will fail”, he added, considering that Turkey often used the PKK as an “excuse”. Mr. Barzani also stressed his refusal to postpone the referendum on the status of Kirkuk, considering that there was “a kind of plot against the Kurds to delay” this poll, scheduled to take place before the end of 2007. “Delay would be a source of conflict and could only cause problems for the future”, he considered. The Turkish press had, last month, quoted Mr. Barzani as stating that if Turkey “were to interfere in (the issue of) Kirkuk, on behalf of only a few thousands of Turkomen, then we will act on behalf of 30 million Kurds in Turkey”. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had answered him by warning the Iraqi Kurds of the “very high cost” for them of a hostile attitude to Turkey.
Following a bloody bomb attack attributed to the PKK — the organisation has denied any involvement in it — that had caused 6 deaths and 121 injured in Ankara, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for his part stated on 23 May that his government would support the Army if it sought to intervene against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan. Speaking on a private television channel some hours after the authorities had pointed a finger at the PKK for involvement in the bomb attack, Mr. Erdogan declared: “We will take the necessary step, if need be, without delay”, referring to the need of a parliamentary green light for sending troops abroad. However, Mr. Erdogan insisted on the work of a tri-lateral machinery for cooperation set up between Turkey, the United States and Iraq, while admitting that it had not given the expected results. However, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, stated on 25 May that Turkey “was at the end of its patience” but had no intention of acting immediately. “Our patience is at an end (…) but timing is important. The important thing is to get results” from any possible intervention, pointed out Mr. Gul in reply to a question on the NTV news channel. In a diplomatic note sent to Baghdad on 9 April, Turkey had demanded that Iraq capture and hand over members of the PK, that in dissolve the organisations linked to this movement and place the PKK on its list of terrorist organisations. Baghdad had replied to this note on 17 May, expressing “its intention of cooperating on the issue of PKK terrorism”.
Military activity has been observed during the last few weeks on the Iraqi Kurdistan borders — a fairly unusual mobilisation at this time of the year, but coinciding with the discussion about cross-border operations. The Turkish Army has explained that the strengthening of its border presence was a normal summer measure aimed at preventing any infiltration of PKK fighters However for some weeks the Turkish television networks have been showing pictures of Army lorries going towards the border and trains transporting tanks and weapons to the area. “The PKK must be eliminated as a problem between Turkey ad Iraq”, declared the Turkish special envoy to Iraq, Oguz Celikkol, during an interview n the CNN-Turk channel. On 29 May, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the United States and Iraq to destroy the PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan and did not exclude a Turkish cross-border operation. On 30 May, through its spokesman, Levent Bilman, the Turkish Foreign Ministry urged Iraq to take “the necessary measures to stop the activities of terrorist by all possible means”. In reply to the question as to whether the Iraqi authorities had been informed of the possibility of cross-border operations by Ankara, Mr. Bilman replied “Such a decision is the solely Turkey’s business. We have no need to inform anyone whatsoever about it”. According to Ankara, up to 3,800 PKK fighters are allegedly based in Iraqi Kurdistan and up to 2,300 operating on Turkish soil.
Nevertheless, in the past, this kind of operation has never been particularly successful while fighting between the Turkish Army and the PKK ha intensified over the last few weeks. On 30 May, the Turkish Army claimed to have killed 10 PKK fighters since 27 May. Four PKK fighters were killed on 24 May. On 18 May a remote controlled mine, attributed by the authorities to the PKK, exploded as the Tunceli Police Chief’s convoy was passing, without, however, injuring anyone. Moreover, on the same day, another mine detailed several wagons of a goods train at Genç, also without causing any casualties, according to local authorities.
While the debate is taking place in Turkey over the appropriateness of military intervention in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Turkish leaders are accusing Washington of inactivity in the fight against the PKK, the Turkish Army has accused the US Air Force of violating its air space. On 28 May, Ross Wilson, American Ambassador to Ankara, stressed, during a dinner in honour of a US Congress mission to Ankara, that “it was just a mistake of navigation, an accident”. According to the Turkish Army’s Internet site, the incident took place on 24 may in the Uzumlu area, in Hakkari Province. Two F-16 US fighters “violated Turkish air space for four minutes” and the Turkish Foreign Ministry was informed of the situation “so that the necessary approaches be made”, the Army pointed out. The mass circulation daily Hurriyet described this violation as a challenge by the United States, so as to prevent Turkey from intervening in Iraqi Kurdistan. Washington urges Ankara not to launch any unilateral cross-border operations, considering that such action could destabilise Iraqi Kurdistan and increase the tension between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds.
On 21 May, Ankara dismissed the Turkish special envoy responsible for co-ordinating the struggle against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after he stated that the process of consultation with the US was not working. The retired general, Edip Baser, was sacked because some of his recent statements were liable “unfavourably to affect” the struggle by Turkey and the United States to eradicate the PKK, indicated a communiqué of the Prime Minister’s Press Office. According to this communiqué, “Turkey is pursuing, as a priority” its efforts against the PKK, together with the United States and Iraq. Me. Baser has been replaced by Ambassador Rafet Akgunay. Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, the statement pointed out. Mr. Baser had been appointed last year, together with the retired US general Joseph W. Ralston, Washington’s special envoy, for the struggle against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Turkish Army has launched operations in several Kurdish provinces to hunt down PKK members. On 14 May, the Turkish General Staff indicated in a communiqué that six PKK fighters had been killed in fighting since the beginning of the month. The communiqué, published on the General Staff’s web site, said that these PKK fighters had been killed between 1 and 11 May, without stated the location of the clashes. The General Staff also mentioned the arrest of 14 PKK fighters and the surrender of seven others. Tunceli Province is one of the hardest hit by clashes between the Turkish Army and fighters of the PKK, on the one hand, but also those of the Turkish extreme left. Thus four Kurdish fighters were killed o 31 May in clashes with the Army. In a first incident, three Kurdish fighters died near the village of Ceçekli. Two Kurdish fighters were also shot down on 27 May near the village of Cemisgezek, another locality in Tunceli Province, while one man was killed and another seriously injured by a mine. On the same evening, two members of Turkish extreme left organisation TKP-TIKKO were killed during a Turkish Army raid in the same province. Finally, on 26 May, two soldiers were killed when a mine exploded in the Nizamiye quarter of Tunceli.
The other provinces of Turkish Kurdistan have not been spared their share of armed conflict. On 29 May, seven PKK members were killed in fighting in a mountainous area of Siirt province and three other Kurdish fighters were shot down at Muradiye, in Van province. In Hakkari a fourth fighter was shot down by troops. The day before, a Turkish soldier and a PKK fighter were killed in fighting. On 26 May, a member of the government militia and a civilian were killed in clashes with the PKK in Sirnak province. These clashes occurred as the Army was carrying out a large-scale combing operation following the death, on 24 May, of seven soldiers by a mine in the Bessler-Dereler locality of Sirnak province, which the authorities claim was laid by the PKK. On 25 May, seven wagons of a goods train were derailed following the explosion of a bomb on the rails, presumably laid by Kurdish fighters, in Bingol province, according to the semi-official Anatolia news agency. On 19 May, a Turkish soldier and a PKK fighter were killed during clashes. The soldier was killed in a PKK ambush in a mountainous area near Lice, in Diyarbekir province, while the Kurdish fighter was killed in a mountainous area of Sirnak province.
At the same time, the Turkish police have intensified their action against Kurdish activists in urban areas, especially since the bloody bomb attack that shook Ankara on 23 May and has shocked the whole of Turkey. This attack took place at rush hour outside a shopping precinct that sheltered some 200 small shops in the very heart of Turkey’s second largest metropolis. Ankara, which is the country’s administrative heart, has 4 million inhabitants. The Turkish press states that the perpetrator of this attack, in the Ulus quarter of the city, is a former extreme left activist who has since joined the PKK. The authorities claim that, in all likelihood, Guven Akkus, 28 years of age, was the person who blew himself up with several kilograms of plastic explosives in front of this shopping centre near the historic old quarter of the Turkish capital, killing himself and six other people. The Turkish press has speculated that the target of the attack might have been the chief of the Turkish Army General Staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, who was due to pass that way to go to a reception at the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, a few hundred yards from the explosion. However, the PKK has denied any connection with this attack. Seven people, including the suicide bomber were killed and 121 others were injured in this attack. Amongst the casualties were eight Palestinians, who were attending and International Armaments Fair. This event, the official dinner of which was due to take place at the near-by Museum of Anatolian Civilisations at 7.00 p.m., accommodated some 500 companies from 49 different countries.
Hussein Bagci, a specialist in international relations at Ankara’s ODTU University, considered that the pressures being exerted on the People’s Democratic Party (DTP — pro-Kurdish) at the approach of the 22 July general elections could also be one of the causes of the renewal of violence. “The more Turkey blocks the participation of pro-Kurdish politicians in the elections, the more probable become the resort to bomb attacks by radical groups”, this academic considered.
On 26 May, the Turkish police also arrested ten Kurds, including one woman, on suspicion of preparing a suicide bomb attack in three separate operations against the PKK in Istanbul. On 25 May, twenty-six people, including eight women, mainly university students, were also arrested by the police in Konya (central Turkey).
On 1 May the Justice and Development Party (AKP — in office) suffered a setback at the Turkish Constitutional Court, which invalidated the first round of the Presidential election, in which the islamist party’s candidate, the Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, was the sole candidate. After failing to have its candidate elected following a crisis and a confrontation with the Army, the government decided to call an early General Election for 22 July. On the night of the first round of the Presidential election, the Army, which has overthrown four governments since 1960, intervened with a memorandum in which the government and its candidate were accused of failing to defend secular principals. The Army let it be understood, without further ado, that it was prepared to do so itself. The government counter-attacked calling the generals to order — thus provoking an unprecedented crisis that blocked the presidential election process.
On 31 May the members of Parliament also began the final vote on a controversial reform of the Constitution aiming at electing the President by direct universal suffrage — a project that the present Head of State, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, has tried to block. The AKP’s Bill was passed at its first reading on 28 May, but needs to be confirmed by a second vote. The package of amendments, the key clause of which provides for the direct election of the Head of State by universal suffrage, is expected to be supported by 367 Members, that is the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution without a referendum. In addition to this direct election, the Bill provides for a five-year term of office and the right to stand for a second term instead of the present single seven-year term, as well as parliamentary elections every four years instead of the present five. The main opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP — Kemalist and nationalist) opposed these reforms. Henceforth the President will be unable to veto the Bill — however he can demand the holding of a referendum on the issue or refer it to the Constitutional Court to test the legality of the Parliamentary procedure.
The sitting on 28 May had been particularly stormy since the members of parliament came to blows following a speech by one member considered to be personally insulting to the President of the Republic. The independent member, Ummet Kandogan, had provoked controversy during his speech by waving a newspaper, which published a photo of the Islamo-conservative Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and President Sezer sitting side by side with long faces during Army exercises on 26 May during which, according to the paper, they had not exchanged a word. Mr. Kandogan accused the President of expressing “hatred” for the head of the government, which led to fisticuffs between several AKP members and those of the opposition People’s Republican Party.
Since the beginning of April the opposition and the Army have organised huge demonstrations to shake the government in office. Thus on 26 May thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of Denizili, in Western Turkey, following on the mass mobilisation organised in the country’s four largest towns, namely Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Samsun. “Turkey is secular and will remain secular”, shouted the demonstrators, who were surrounded by substantial police protection. Alongside this, two other opposition organisations, the True Path Party (DYP — conservative right) and the Motherland Party (ANAP — conservative right) united on 6 May after bitter haggling and have announced the creation of a Democratic Party which aims to offer an alternative to the AKP at the 22 July elections.
Holding this early General Election was demanded, not only by the opposition parties but also by business circles and most of the media. On 2 May the European Union called on the Turkish Army to keep out of the political crisis round the Presidential election (that it had created). According to the Commissioner for the Enlargement, Olli Rehn, Ankara must conform to the law and accept civilian control of the Armed Forces. If Turkey wishes to join the European Union, it “must observe these principles”, he stressed.
On 17 May, the Public Prosecutor of the Court of Appeals ordered the Party for a Democratic Society (DTP), the principal pro-Kurdish party, to exclude four former members of parliament, including Leyla Zana, because of their prison record, a move that could prevent them from taking part in the 22 July elections. The Public Prosecutor pointed out to the DTP that the four politicians could not be members of the party as they had been sentenced to imprisonment declared Sedat Yurttas, DTP Vice-President. “In consequence our party has cancelled their membership of the party as well as that of 116 other members also sentenced for various crimes of opinion”, added Mr. Yurttas.
Leyla Zana, who received the European Parliament’s 1995 Sakharov Human Rights Prize, as well as her four colleagues Hatip Dicle, Selim Sadak and Orhan Dogan, were elected to parliament in 1991 on the lists of the Social Democratic Party (SHP). However, in 1994 they were sentenced to imprisonment for “collaboration with a Kurdish separatist group”. They were released in 2004, after 10 years imprisonment, following Ankara’s being found guilty by the European Human Rights Court of a series faults in their case. Accused of “having tried to justify separatism”, Mrs. Zana is again being sued and faces another five years in prison. Her lawyer, Yusuf Alatas, has denounced this as “a signal indicating to other institutions that these people must not be allowed to take part in the general elections”. The principal body to which this message is being addressed is, according to Mr. Alatas, the Higher Electoral Commission, which has to approve the candidacy of the four political leaders should they wish, like a number of other DTP representatives, to stand as independents.
On 9 May, Ahmet Turk, head of the DTP, indicated that his party would present independent candidates at the 22 July General Elections in view of the party’s inability to win the 10% of the overall national vote needed to be represented in Parliament. He was speaking at the end of a meeting of his party in Diyarbekir aimed at defining its strategy for the general elections. The Turkish parliament has several Kurdish members, but the parties advocating more rights for the Kurds generally fail to score 10% of the national total, even though they will the majority of the votes in Turkish Kurdistan and generally win local elections. The DTP, formed in November 2005, is the successor of a series of banned pro-Kurdish parties. It advocates a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish problem.
On 30 May, in the course of a ceremony in Irbil, the US Army transferred responsibility for security of the three Kurdish Provinces of Irbil, Dohuk and Suleimaniyah to the regional government of Kurdistan. With this transfer, responsibility for security of seven of the 18 provinces has been handed over to Iraqis. Responsibility for security of the Provinces of Najaf, Muthanna, Zi Qar, and Missan has already been transferred to the Iraqi government. But, for the first time, this responsibility has not been assigned to the central government but to a federated regional entity. With a red scarf knotted round their necks and white gloves on their hands, the peshmergas paraded through Irbil with the Kurdish flag sown onto the sleeves of their uniforms and to the tune of the Kurdish national anthem, as part of the ceremony. “Through this transfer, we recognise that the Kurdish government can handle its own security”, explained General Kurt Cichowski, Assistant to the Commander of US Forces in Iraq, David Petraeus. “The regional government of Kurdistan is an example of democracy and security for all Iraq’s provinces. Reinforcing the security of Kurdistan reinforces the security of Iraq”, stressed Moaffaq al-Rubai, Iraqi National Security Advisor. For his part, General Benjamin Mixon, who runs the Northern multinational division, evoked “a historic day”. “You have been able to attract foreign investors because of the security that reigns in this province”, he continued.
Broadly speaking, Kurdistan has been spared the violence that is drenching the rest of the country in blood. The peshmergas screen entry into the Kurdish provinces and any Arab wanting to settle there has to have guarantors. More reliable than the rest of the country, Kurdistan is attracting foreign investors and the local economy is prospering. Basically, however, this transfer merely makes official an already existing situation. “This is the fruit of 16 years experience”, rejoiced the Prime Minster of the regional government, Nechirvan Barzani. Ever since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, Kurdistan has been autonomous and the peshmergas have ensured its security. The Kurdish police force has 20,000 members and the peshmergas are almost 100,000 strong. If the transfer agreement provides for future cooperation between the Kurdish forces, the Iraqi Army and the Americans, the number of peshmergas to be integrated into the Kurdish regional forces. Since it already has its own Parliament and its own government with its own army, Kurdistan will enjoy, from now on, a stronger degree of autonomy. For many Kurds this is one step further towards independence, even if the Baghdad authorities refuse to hear of such a thing. “We have made the choice of federalism and we do not regret it”, insisted the Kurdish Prime Minister, before calling once again for a referendum on the adhesion of Kirkuk Province, so long a victim of forced Arabisation under the Saddam Hussein regime.
The Kurdish provinces not yet under the control of the peshmergas continue, nevertheless, to suffer from the generalised violence. At least 41 people were killed on 23 May in acts of violence, 20 of them civilians, in a suicide bomb attack on a café in the centre of Mandali, a town largely inhabited by Feyli Kurds (Shiite Kurds) near the Iranian border. On 19 May, some armed men, dressed as members of the security forces, shot down 15 Shiite Kurdish inhabitants of a village some 15 Km from Mandali — an attack carried out in the name of “The Islamic State of Iraq” — an alliance of Sunni Arab extremists led by the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida. Furthermore, on 13 May, a car bomb attack near the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP — one of the largest Kurdish organisations) caused 50 deaths and some 70 injured at Makhmur. The attack was aimed at a group of building that included the KDP offices, the local town hall, and a police station. Amongst the injured taken to hospital in Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan, was the mayor of Makhmur, Abdel Rahman Bilaf.
Iraqis from different regions of the country have settled in Kurdistan to escape the reigning violence. Many buildings are being built throughout the town and foreign companies have settled there. “It’s fortunate for Western firms to find a stable region where they can invest in Iraq”, declared the US Under Secretary of State for Defence, Paul Brinkley who was visiting Kurdistan with about twenty American investors.
The US Army went through a particularly deadly month of may in Iraq, the worst since November 2004, with 116 soldiers killed, mostly in bomb attacks in Baghdad and Diyala province to the north of Baghdad. On 31 May, General Wiggins, explained this bloody record by the strategy adopted by the United States at the beginning of the year of putting an end to the escalation of violence in Baghdad by using American soldiers as backup. At least 3,468 US soldiers and military personnel have died in Iraq since the invasion of the country in March 2003 according to an AFP body count based on Pentagon figures.
Violence caused 1,689 deaths in Iraq in April, a drop of 19% as compared with March, according to Iraqi statistics. However the month of April was deadlier for the US Army, which lost 99 men, as against 85 in March, according to AFP on the basis of Pentagon figures. Some 1,498 civilians, 128 police and 63 soldiers lost their lives in April, giving a total of 1,689 dead, according to an assessment taking into account figures from the Iraqi Ministries of Defence, the Interior and Health. In March 1,869 civilian, 165 police and 44 soldiers lost their lives, to give a total of 2,078 people killed — 15% up on February. On an average, 56 people were killed per day in April (30 days) as against 67 a day in March (31 days). Acts of violence also caused 2,330 civilian injured in April as against 2,719 in March.
On 25 may, US President George W. Bush signed the Bill for financing military operations in Iraq that the US Congress had passed the day before after a congressional battle between the Democrats (who have the majority in the Capitol) and the White House. The President had vetoed a previous budget Bill because it included a timetable for troop withdrawal demanded by the Democrats but considered dangerous by the White House.
On 29 May, the Syrian Minister of the Interior, Bassam Abdel Majid, announced that President Bachar al-Assad had been re-elected for a fresh seven-year term of office with 97.62% of the votes following the referendum on 27 May. This referendum, whose outcome was never in any doubt, was boycotted by the opposition parties, which have no legal existence in Syria and demand in vain an electoral law that would give them some legal existence. Elections took place at a time when the authorities were taking a tougher stand against any protests. Several opposition public figures have been sentenced to heavy terms of imprisonment in the last few months. According to the Minister at a Press Conference, the electoral turnout was 95.86%; that is nearly 11.19 million voters. Of these 19,653 or 1.71% are said to have voted NO while there were some 253,000 spoilt ballots, according to the Minister. Some 12 million electors had been called upon to answer YES or NO to the question “Do you approve the candidature of Dr. Bashar al-Assad to the position of President of the Republic?”. Many of the polling stations that were visited by the AFP journalists had no polling booths, others had them, but without any screening curtain.
Bachar al-Assad had secured 97.29% of the vote during the first referendum that placed him in office in 2000, a month after the death of his father Hafez al-Assad. However, he was not originally destined to take over the reins since it was only at the death of his brother Bassel in 1994 that Bachar started rising in the ranks of the Army, became a colonel, took charge of the Lebanese and Turkish issues (the Kurdish PKK case) as a prelude to his being appointed Head of State. Sole candidate to the Presidency on his father’s death, he was appointed commander in Chief of the Armed Forces on 11 June 2000, elected Secretary General of the Baath Party on 20 June and became the 16th President of the country on 11 July, at the age of 34. “The last few years have shown President Assad’s competence in handling events while remaining loyal to the national causes”, “the dialogue within Syrian society has broadened (…) national unity has been consolidated”, declared the Minister. “Syria has said NO to a false democracy that leads to chaos”, the Minister continued.
In accordance with the Constitution, Parliament then officially proclaimed Bachar al-Assad President of Syria for a fresh seven-year term of office. “On 10 May, Parliament had unanimously approved Bachar al=Assad’s candidacy, as proposed by the Baath Party, in power since 1963. This poll, indeed, took the form of plebiscite on the President’s domestic and foreign policy. On taking office, Bachar, a doctor and ophthalmologist by training, had aroused considerable hopes for the liberalisation of the political system that had been run with an iron hand for the last thirty years. While he advocated “the right to disagree” in the inaugural speech that followed his taking office, his vague liberal impulses were rapidly stifled in the summer of 2001 with the jailing of the symbols of the “Damascus Spring”, the short period of political openness that followed his taking office. Taking his cue from the Chinese model by proclaiming that “economic reforms must come before political reforms” and explaining in 2003 that the Syrian opponents had “misunderstood” his promises about democracy on his investiture. Under his leadership, the Baath Party has maintained its role of leading “the State and society”.
Questioned about the possibility of an amnesty for political detainees, the Minister of the Interior replied that this decision “is up to the President himself”. “President Assad has, in the past, proclaimed many amnesties”, he stressed. The Syrian regime, was, moreover, shaken by the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, in 2005 — for which the accusing finger was generally pointed at Syria. He had been forced to withdraw his troops from the Lebanon a few months later under international pressure. However, despite the isolation in which Syria found itself, Bachar al-Assad has made good use of some of the cards in his hand, in particular his alliances with Russia, Iran, the Hezbollah, the Palestinian movements, as well as the anti-American trends in Iraq.
The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is opposed to Turkey’s joining the European Union, has put forward the idea of a “Mediterranean Union”, insisting that this is not intended as a consolation prize should this overwhelmingly Moslem country fail to gain entry to the E.U. On 30 May, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, indicated that Ankara was studying the proposal of a union of Mediterranean countries but did not accept that it was an alternative to Turkey’s membership of the European Union. On 2 May, Nicolas Sarkozy had re-iterated his opposition to Turkey’s joining the European Union by declaring: “even though it is a secular state, it is in Asia Minor (…) I would not be able to explain to French schoolchildren that the borders of Europe are with Iraq and Syria. Even when Kurdistan has been made a European problem, it will not have advanced the situation”.
After Nicolas Sarkozy’s election, Jean-David Levitte, the French President’s diplomatic advisor, visited Ankara over 25/26 May, to maintain bi-lateral relations. This discreet journey followed a telephone conversation on 24 May between the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Nicolas Sarkozy. The Turkish Prime Minister had phoned Nicolas Sarkozy to try and establish “direct” contact with the French President, who always prefers special relationships. The Turkish press agency, Anatolia, stated that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had reminded Nicolas Sarkozy, of the bonds, at once economic, political and military, that united Turkey and France and considered that Ankara and Paris should be able to resolve the problems “by working together and by direct encounters”.
Paris has let it be understood that it would not put any obstacles, for the time being, to discussions between Brussels and Ankara nor veto the opening of negotiations on three new chapters, planning to start on 26 June coming. The French authorities, in principle, do not want the Turkish issue to interfere with their “simplified treaty”. However Nicolas Sarkozy does not intend going back on his election campaign commitments regarding Turkey. During his first visit to Brussels after his election, Mr. Sarkozy explained that he hoped to postpone the Turkish question to later, to allow time for resolving the institutional problem. According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Jean-David Levitte, a former French Ambassador to Washington, was able to meet senor Turkish diplomats and some of Mr. Erdogan’s advisors.
Furthermore, in an interview to La Stampa on 30 May, the Vatican’s N° 2, Cardinal Tarcisco Bertone, stated that the Catholic Church was in favour of Turkey’s entry into the European Union, since that country “has travelled a long way” and “observes the fundamental rules of joint life”. Questioned as an aside to the conference on the subject of “Christianity and Secularism”, the Vatican’s secretary of State declared in, particular, that “Turkey is a fundamentally secular country (…) In Europe secularity is extolled as such as such and secularism even more so. And in the name of this secularism all references to Judeo-Christian roots are rejected (in Europe)”.
The Sharm el-Sheikh Conference aimed at preventing Iraq from foundering in violence and financial bankruptcy brought together on 3 and 4 May about sixty countries including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United States as well as international organisations, notably the European Union, UNO, the Arab League, and the Islamic Conference Organisation (ICO). On this occasion, Iraq and the international community urged the neighbouring countries to help the struggle against the endemic violence reigning. “We will not allow terrorist organisations to consider Iraqi territory a safe place for them”, stated the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the meeting. “This leads us to call on the countries of the region to prevent terrorist groups from entering Iraq and securing financial aid or political or media attention”, he continued.
“Supporting terrorism is not in anyone’s interest”, stressed Mr. Maliki. “What the brother (countries) can do is to support, in an impartial manner” an Iraq that is prey to daily murderous violence.”
Speaking in turn the UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon urged those taking part “to do their share of the work in denouncing sectarian violence in Iraq strengthening bi-lateral exchange in the region and encouraging national dialogue in Iraq”.
In the opinion of US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, Iraq’s neighbours, Syria, Iran but also Saudi Arabia have “everything to lose” if they fail to use their influence to stabilise the country. On the second day of this diplomatic assembly of an unprecedented scope for Iraq, attention was, however somewhat monopolised by the possibility of fresh contacts between Mrs. Rice and her Iranian and Syrian opposite numbers. In contrast with previous US policy that rejected any direct contact with these long standing enemies, Mrs. Rice had a brief exchange with the Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki and had a half-hour meeting with her Syrian equivalent Walid Muallem. Mrs. Rice also exchanged polite remarks with the Iranian Foreign Minister during a lunch attended by other leaders. This exchange was, nevertheless, considered significant as between two countries that have had no diplomatic relations since 1980. The White House, however, minimised the scope of these talks, describing them as “conversations in an aside”.
The Conference unanimously passed the International Contract of objectives for Iraq, a five-year plan for rescuing Iraq economically, aimed at strengthening its security and straightening out its economy. This Contract, proposed on 28 July 2006 by Baghdad and the United Nations and supported by the World Bank, planned to strengthen security and straighten out the economy in Iraq, where acts of violence have been raging for the last four years. Delegates from several participating countries also committed themselves to reducing Iraq’s debt, which amounted to $50 billion, mainly to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Russia and China. These debts had been essentially incurred under the Saddam Hussein regime and during the war against Iran in the 80s, according to the Iraqi Minister of Finance Bayan Jabr. A first debt of $100 billion has already been cancelled by the members of the Paris Club.
On the other hand, the US Congress broadly approved a $120 billion Bill to finance US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan until September. The House of Representatives passed the Bill by 280 against 142 and the senate by 80 against 14. After several weeks’ trial of strength with the White House, the Democrats in Congress finally gave up conditioning the financing of American deployment by a clause setting a date for the beginning of the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The new Bill, in the other hand, sets the necessity of the Iraqi government’s achieving 18 political and economic objectives.
In the context of a “cleaning up campaign, sic Kurdish fighters have been killed by the Iranian Army, reported the Iranian news agency ISNA on 30 May. “On 28 May, operational units from the Seyed ol-Shihada base succeeded in killing ten armed counter-revolutionaries in the Salmas region in the course of a campaign to clean and make more secure this border region”, stated the Army communiqué published by the agency. The Salmas region is some dozen kilometres from the Turkish border.
In February, violent clashes took place between Iranian Armed Forces and Kurdish fighters in this area. At the time Iran had announced that nearly 50 Kurdish fighters had been killed in clashes between the Iranian Armed Forces and PEJAK activists. PEJAK is a Kurdish party close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Fourteen soldiers of the Iranian regular army and of the elite Guardians of the Revolution, including two senior officers, had been killed by the crash of their helicopter during these operations.
In March, Iran announced the arrest of 207 “counter-revolutionaries” in this region in the previous year. The Province of West Azerbaijan houses a substantial Kurdish population. It has been the scene, for over a year, of regular armed clashes with Kurdish activists, particularly from PEJAK. The Iranian government regularly accuses the United States and Britain of helping armed groups from the religious and ethnic minorities of regions of Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah, which have substantial Kurdish populations and in Khuzistan (Arabistan) that has an Arab majority.
On 17 May, the British Chatham House International Relations Research Centre considered, in a report, that Iraq, where several parallel civil wars are raging, is in danger of collapsing and breaking up. “There is not just one civil war or one insurrection but several civil wars and insurrections between different communities in Iraq today”, according to the 12-page report written by Gareth Stansfield, a specialist on the Near East associated with the centre. It may be thought that “Iraq, today, is on the point of becoming a state in disarray with a consequent danger of collapsing and breaking up” into several distinct entities, he continued. Adding: “The Iraqi government is not in a position to exercise its authority over the country. Over wide stretches of the territory it does not exist, neither politically nor economically nor socially”.
The report considers that Iraq’s principal neighbours — Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — all have reasons “to seek that the instability should endure”. Iraq “is, today, the theatre in which Iran can “fight” the United States without doing so in an open manner”, stresses the research worker, who considers that Teheran is in a position to play a more important role than is the United States. He adds that pushing the Sunni Arab minority into the background worries the Sunni Countries of the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, he continues, dislikes the growing influence of Teheran in the region and will not remain inactive id an American withdrawal provokes open war between the two communities. According to the report, the offensive being conducted since February by the American Army and the Iraqi Forces against the militia in Baghdad has not reduced the acts of violence — the insurgents have simply carried out their attacks outside the capital. However, the centre adds that the Bill on sharing oil revenues between the different communities (Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish) could be “the key to Iraq’s survival”. Chatham House’s report stresses that the country is not just confronted with a single “civil war” between the Shiite majority and the Sunni Arabs who were all powerful under Saddam Hussein, but several conflicts based on religious, ethnic and tribal differences, each with different objectives.
Furthermore the Iraqi Parliament is increasingly considered ineffective by a growing number of Iraqis because of the attitude of it Speaker, the Sunni Salafist (fundamentalist) Mahmud al-Mashadani. This 59-year-old former doctor, who was a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein, is accused by many Iraqis of running the Parliament as if it were a pub. Last year he only just survived a campaign to dismiss him organised by Kurdish and Shiite members of parliament. After he had decreed that Iraqis who killed Americans should be fêted as heroes. Even more worrying are the heavy permanent suspicions about certain Sunni Arab members of parliament, who are believed to be linked to the acts of violence in the country, or those about certain Shiite members who are thought to be close to the death squads to which are attributed the spiral of sectarian violence that has seized the country since the February 2006 bomb attack on Samarra’s Golden Mosque, one of the principal Shiite sanctuaries in the country. Vexed observers also consider that their party loyalties and religious affiliations prevent the members of parliament from having a real role of supervision over the government and acting as a counterweight. All these things mean that there is a serious danger to the vote on several Bills crucial to the country’s future: the Bill on the redistribution of oil revenues and another intended to promote national reconciliation.
Moreover, the radical Shiite chief, Moqtada Sadr, who hasn’t appeared in public since October 2006, and who the Americans claimed had sought refuge in Iran, arrived to speak to those faithful to him at the Kufa Mosque South of Baghdad on 25 May. Moqtada Sadr had ordered the powerful militia that he runs, the Mahdi’s Army that has between 10,000 and 60,000 fighters, to keep a low profile in Baghdad, where over 85,000 US and Iraqi troops are deployed to fight against sectarian violence. Moqtada Sadr also enjoys wide support Among the Shiites in Baghdad and the disadvantaged classes of the cities of the south. With 32 members of Parliament (out of 275) his trend is the largest movement inside the Shiite parliamentary coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (130 seats in all). However, the six Sadrist Ministers had left the government in April to protest against the Prime Minister’s refusal to set up a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from the country.
On 25 May, the Council of Europe announced that a delegation of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) had visited the Turkish prison of Imrali on 20 and 21 May to examine the state of health of the establishment’s single detainee, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. The visit took place following a long hunger strike by Kurds in Strasbourg, aimed at securing the despatch of independent experts to see the imprisoned PKK leader, whose lawyers say he is suffering from poisoning. The latter had made public, early in March in Rome, the results of analyses made of the prisoner’s hair that they claimed established that Ocalan was suffering from poisoning, in all probability through consuming toxic metals. The Turkish authorities had then appointed a group of experts to carry out analyses on the prisoner who, according the Turkish judicial authorities, established that the allegations of poisoning were “baseless”. The delegation from the (CPT) examined Ocalan’s state of health as well as the conditions of his detention and the setting up, in practice, of his right to receive visitors. On 22 May it met the Turkish Minister of Justice, Fahri Kasirga, and informed his of their preliminary observations.
The hunger strike by Kurds had lasted 39 days and had ended after the promise by the CPT to undertake “appropriate actions on the subject”. In parallel, hunger strikes took place in Great Britain, Sweden and Turkish Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdistan in support of the Strasbourg strikers. On 12 May, between 14,000 and 40,000 Kurds (depending on the police or organisers’ figures) demonstrated in support of the hunger strikers in the Capital of Alsace. A petition, bearing 103,000 signatures and supported several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) was submitted to the Council of Europe to request that Abdullah Ocalan be examined by an independent commission of doctors. The French Communist MEP and the German MEP of Kurdish origin, Feleknas Uca, who initiated the petition on 26 April, went to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture to present the folders to its Executive General Secretary, Trevor Stevens.
The PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been serving a life sentence for “separatism” since 1999. In May 2005, the European Court for Human Rights, on appeal, confirmed the inequitable character of his trial in Turkey and recommended that he be retried — however Turkey is refusing to organise a new trial.