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After Turkish Airstrikes, Rice Visits Kirkuk

NEAL CONAN, host:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Kirkuk in northern Iraq today. But the president of Iraqi Kurdistan refused to meet her. Kurdistan is by far the quietest and the most pro-American part of Iraq. But Massoud Barzani was protesting Turkish air and ground attacks inside Iraq. Attacks, he said, could not have happened without American knowledge.

Indeed, the Washington Post reports today that the U.S. provided Turkey with intelligence so they could target bases of the PKK, the rebel Kurdish group that stages attacks on Kurdish forces from bases in northern Iraq.

Joining us now here in Studio 3A is Michael Rubin, a resident fellow at The American Enterprise Institute, a frequent visitor to Iraqi Kurdistan. Nice to have you back in the program today.

Mr. MICHAEL RUBIN (Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute): Thanks for having me back.

CONAN: Turkey has, for weeks now, have been threatening large scale attacks across the border. There had been some airstrikes, some artillery fire today. Ground troops reportedly went about a mile and half inside of Iraqi Kurdistan then withdrew. What's going on here?

Mr. RUBIN: Well, this is actually a problem which has been boiling up for about five years now. The PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, is a terrorist group or freedom fighters depending on one's perspective. They waged an insurgency in Turkey from 1984 to 1997 that took about 30,000 lives.

Now, over the course of the last two months, there has been an escalation of attacks inside Turkey. And so when I was last in Turkey during the last big attack on October 21st, it actually reminded me of New York or Washington after 9/11 with Turkish flags everywhere. I think Turkish flag sales went up 700 percent. And this has also been an election year in Turkey. So this has amplified the feeling that this diplomatic situation, this struggle with the PKK and its safe havens in northern Iraq has gone on long enough.

CONAN: And the United States has allies on both sides of this. United States regards the PKK as a terrorist organization, but NATO-ally Turkey says you have intelligence; you've got a lot of people on the ground, a lot of information about what's going on in Iraqi Kurdistan, why didn't you tell us what's going on? And the Iraqi Kurds say, wait a minute, these are Kurds, too. They share many of the same goals that we do - the same language, the same culture. You can't be asking Turkey to attack us. What's the United States do?

Mr. RUBIN: Well, you're absolutely right. And one of the major diplomatic problems is both the Iraqi Kurds and the Turks look at relations as a zero sum game. You're either with us or against us. And whenever I go to Iraqi Kurdistan or whenever I go to Turkey, I say, hey, look, the United States, for example, is friendly with Israel, we're also friendly with Saudi Arabia, and we don't let Riyadh and we don't let Tel Aviv tell us to not be friendly with the others.

Now, when it comes to the problem in Iraqi Kurdistan, though, it's actually been compounded by the fact that perhaps Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, doesn't fully understand the position in which the United States has been put in.

In June, the Pew Global Attitudes survey determined that the United States and Americans only have respectively an 8 and 11 percent favorable rating in Turkey. That made Turkey the most anti-American country in the world. And talking to Turkish journalists, talking to Turkish politicians and so forth, everyone is united in saying it's because people don't believe that the United States is doing enough about this terrorist group that's targeting Turkey.

Now, Massoud Barzani is playing into a couple of different factors. On one hand, he is rather isolated. He surrounds himself by advisers who tell him what he wants to hear, and he may have been genuinely surprised by which way the United States came down. There's a tendency in the Kurdish media to say - and among Kurdistan Democratic Party politicians to say either you're 100 percent for us or you're an enemy. And that's just diplomatically an immature strategy.

On the other hand, when we talk about Massoud Barzani boycotting Condoleezza Rice today, part of this is just the nature of Iraqi politics. That the squeaky wheel has, over the last few years, got in the grease. Whoever boycotts the secretary of state - whether it's the Kurdish parties, whether it's the Sunni parties or whether it's a Shia parties - gets rewarded by a reassessment of strategy and usually a moderation of the U.S. position.

CONAN: Hmm. Interestingly, the Kurdish ground attack was into an area - Dahuk province. That is very much Barzani country. This is in his area. These are his supporters.

Mr. RUBIN: Well, exactly. And you always have to look at Kurdish politics against the context of the competition between Massoud Barzani, the leader -the president of Iraqi Kurdistan and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Jalal Talabani, who on one hand is now the president of Iraq, but on the other hand is also the leader of his - of Barzani's chief competitor, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. They talk about being unified, they're not.

But the main issue is Talabani will always be more moderate than Barzani because Barzani shares the entire border with Turkey. Talabani doesn't. Talabani borders with Iran. So when it comes to Turkish troops coming in, no matter where they come in, they're going to be coming into Massoud Barzani's territory.

CONAN: Is it also possible that the United States - by giving Turkey information on where these bases were, where to target their airstrikes, their artillery, even their ground attacks - says, look, if you can - if you know where the bases are, you don't need a massive assault. You can make - pinpoint attacks and withdraw and it shouldn't be so bad. Massoud Barzani - maybe, you know, a few hundred Turkish troops went in, not a few hundred thousand.

Mr. RUBIN: Well, yes. That's absolutely right. However, I would assert a cautionary note with regard to the quality of U.S. intelligence here. First of all, I was held at gunpoint by the PKK in October of 2003 when I was driving in this area along the Iranian-Turkish-Iraqi borders. When I got back to the Pentagon, I was working for the Pentagon at the time, the response was, oh, we didn't know they were there. But everyone else knew they were there. The fact of the matter is we don't have actionable intelligence. If it means going in and telling them where they were 48 hours ago, that's one thing. But telling them where they are at the present, just doesn't happen.

We also don't have many troops in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds' main complaint with this last attack is that we control the airspace over Iraq and therefore, the Turks violated the airspace. Either we gave them permission or we didn't. But either way, it's not an excuse for the Kurds.

Now, we're not worried about coming into conflict with Turkish troops if they come in because, again, we don't have many troops there. The main policy concern in Washington, and the reason why the Pentagon and the State Department want to avoid this getting out of control, is that the Turks come and say they are chasing terrorists, even if we agree that the Turks are chasing terrorists then the Iranians might come in anywhere along the border and say they're chasing terrorist too, and that could lead into a quick escalation of conflict.

CONAN: And just to throw another spanner into the works, the United States very dependent on the airbase Incirlik in Turkey, a NATO base. But the Turks have threatened before that if the United States did not cooperate maybe Incirlik would be close to the United States - very important to supporting U.S. activities, not just in Iraq, but Afghanistan, too.

Mr. RUBIN: Absolutely.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Michael Rubin.

Mr. RUBIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Michael Rubin, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, frequent visitor to Turkey and to Iraqi Kurdistan, with us here in Studio 3A.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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