Iran and Turkey Prepare for War in Iraqi Kurdistan

DEBKAfile Exclusive Military Report

September 24, 2006

A new Middle East war is in the offing. DEBKAfile’s exclusive military sources in Iraq and sources in Iran reveal that Turkish and Iranian air units as well as armored, paratroop, special operations and artillery forces are poised for an imminent coordinated invasion of the northern Iraqi autonomous province of Kurdistan.

Our sources pinpoint the target of the combined Iranian-Turkish offensive as the Quandil Mountains, where some 5,000 Kurdish rebels from Turkey and Iran, members of the PKK and PJAK respectively, are holed up. Iranian and Turkish assault troops are already deployed 7-8 km deep inside Iraqi territory.

Turkey to the northwest and Iran to the east both have Kurdish minorities which have been radicalized by the emergence of Iraqi Kurdistan in the last three years. The three contiguous Kurdish regions form a strategic world hub.

A jittery Washington foresees a Kurdish-Iranian military thrust quickly flaring into a comprehensive conflict and igniting flames that would envelop the whole of Iraqi Kurdistan as well as southern Turkey and Armenia.

Tehran is quite capable of using the opening for its expeditionary force to grab extensive parts of Kurdistan and strike a strategic foothold in northern Iraq.

Informed US officials would not be surprised if Turkey took the chance of seizing northern Iraqi oil fields centered on the oil-rich town of Kirkuk, the source of 40 percent of Iraq’s oil output.

When he met US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in New York Thursday, Sept. 21, Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul said: “When we talk about Kirkuk, everybody supposes we want to bring the Kurdish-Turkish issue to the foreground. However, we instead see the uncertainty there as a general issue of Iraq. We are concerned that instability and turmoil in Kirkuk could cause more troubles in Iraq.”

Referring to the recently appointed special US coordinator Gen. Joseph Ralston, Gul expressed his hope that a resolution would be imminent.

The threat was implicit and impatient. Washington was given to infer that Ankara is on the point of deciding whether or not to capture Kirkuk, a step that would undermine a pivotal political and economic base of the Baghdad government and harm US interests in Iraq.

This conversation, which was not nearly as amicable as it looked from the press photos, was clouded by a disturbing incident: A semi-official American military publication recently ran a new map showing parts of Turkish and Armenian territory marked “Kurdistan.”

This map fueled suspicions in Ankara and the Armenian capital Yerevan that the US high military command was in on a plan for Iraqi Kurdish forces led by President Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani to help themselves to territory in Turkey and Armenia in a counter-attack to a potential Turkish-Iranian military move in Kurdistan.

This kind of mistrust has lent wings to Ankara’s resolve to go forward against Kurdistan - the sooner the better.

To cool tempers and restrain the Turks, the US ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson, stood up in Ankara on Sept 19 and promised: “Northern Iraq won’t serve as a PKK base in the future.” In a speech at a meeting entitled "Agenda 2006," Wilson stated that the map published in an unofficial U.S. military magazine showing parts of Turkish and Armenian territory under the domination of a republic called "Kurdistan" doesn't reflect the official policy of the US.

The ambassador added that the recently stepped-up PKK violent attacks in Turkey “would not be tolerated anymore.”

These words were hardly likely to allay Ankara’s fears, since the ambassador addressed the PKK problem in the future tense, while the Turkish government is troubled by the present.

The approaching conflict, according to DEBKAfile’s military sources, has an Israeli dimension. Since July, Turkish leaders have been impressing on the Bush administration that they have the right to attack Kurdish rebels who mount terrorist attacks in Turkey and take refuge across the border in Iraq’s Quandil Mountains – no less than the Israelis, who with US backing struck back at the Hizballah in Lebanon for its cross-border attacks into northern Israel.

Tehran is not bothering to justify its forthcoming operation in Kurdistan. DEBKAfile’s sources in Tehran report that Iran’s rulers are determined to go in without further ado and crush the Kurdish insurgents carrying out hit-and-run attacks in Iran in recent months.

Vital American and Israeli regional security interests in the Middle East are affected by three additional aspects of the potential anti-Kurdish flare-up.

1. Washington is not convinced by Ankara’s protestations of the absence of Turkish-Iranian military complicity. Turkey and Iran happen to find themselves in the same boat at the same time as targets of terrorists, say the Turks, and both have no choice but to use force to stamp out the violence. But for the Americans, the timing could not be more unfortunate. A possible US (and Israeli) plan to attack Iran’s nuclear installations at this time would be seriously hampered by the closure of Turkish and Kurdish air space to American and Israeli warplanes heading for Iran.

The war plot thickened further this week.

Friday, Sept. 22, while Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah harangued a million Lebanese spectators in Beirut, Iran’s ambassador to Turkey, Firouz Dolatabadi, spoke in Ankara in ominous tones. He said: “Iran, Turkey and Iraq are key points in the world’s geopolitics. Whoever dominates this region can control the whole world.”

Regarding relations between Iran and Turkey, ambassador Dolatabadi said: “History has it that whenever Iran and the Ottoman Emperor had good relations, we would witness good developments in the region.”

Good for whom? asked worried officials in Washington.

2. An Iranian-Turkish victory in a Kurdish campaign would award Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps its second victory in less than two months. The RG officers who commanded Hizballah forces in the Lebanon war of July and August claim full credit for its gains. They thwarted a key objective of the Israeli assault which was to cut Iran’s assets down to size in Lebanon and the western Middle East at large, and have left Iran’s military grip on the region firmer than ever.

3. Israel is concerned lest military action against Turkish PKK rebels uproot its military and economic presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. DEBKAfile’s military sources report that since 2004 Israeli military instructors and intelligence officer have been helping the Kurds build up their peshmerga army and anti-terrorist forces.

Iran and Turkey are convinced that Israel also maintains in north Iraqi Kurdistan observation and early warning posts to forewarn the Jewish state of a coming Iranian attack. If this is so, the two invaders will make a point of destroying such posts. Israel would then forfeit a key intelligence facility against the Islamic Republic.

Regarding Israel’s oft-reported, never officially-admitted, connection with Kurdistan, the BBC’s Newsnight program of Sept 20 claimed to have obtained the first pictures of Kurdish soldiers trained by Israelis in N. Iraq, as well as an interview with an unnamed former trainer.

DEBKAfile’s sources conjecture that the photos were leaked by two sources:

One, Turkish officials concerned to drum up a justifiable “context” for their coming offensive by smearing the Talabani-Barzani leadership as disloyal to Baghdad.

The Kurdish authorities have denied allowing any Israelis into northern Iraq. The purported Israeli trainer told the BBC interviewer that his team was told they would be disowned if discovered.

Two, Turkish or European elements who are anxious to abort an American or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear industry by exposing Kurdish installations that might serve to expand Israel’s strategic options against Iran. The BBC producers suggested that refueling stops at the Irbil (Hawler) airport in Kurdistan would help the Israel air force overcome the problem of distance to an air strike against Iran.

The British program quoted the trainer as describing the courses given to Kurdish airport security people and army as diverse special operations forces’ anti-terrorism tactics and weapons. DEBKAfile adds that before Abu Musab al Zarqawi was taken out by American forces, his men sought high and low for Israeli instructors to abduct as hostages, but never found them.

The Bush administration recently appointed former NATO commander Gen. Joseph Ralston as special US coordinator in Ankara for the PKK issue in the hope of de-escalating the crisis caused by PKK attacks and delaying Ankara’s war operation against Iraqi Kurdistan. In the second week of September, he held a round of conferences with Turkish political and military leaders. His essential argument was that military action is the last option. But he made little headway. Many Turkish officials found the Ralston initiative too late to hold back the inevitable clash for a number of reasons.

They believe the delay he urged would play into the hands of the Kurdish rebels and give them time to consolidate their preparations to fight off an offensive.

Turkish intelligence reports that Talabani and Barzani are less busy with Iraqi affairs than with transferring large quantities of anti-tank and anti-air rockets to the anti-Turkish PKK and the anti-Iranian PJAK in their hideouts.

Ankara is keen, furthermore, to get in its blow against Kurdistan before an American action against Iran. The Turks buy Russian and Iranian intelligence evaluations according which the US attack may take place at any time between the last week of September and the end of December, 2006. So they feel the ground is burning under their feet.

Iran, for its part, is waiting for Turkey to make the first move in Iraqi Kurdistan. Its troops will go into action only after the first Turkish soldier and tank are on the move.