When the war in Iraq begins sometime soon, one of the messiest and most dangerous battles may be across from here in northern Iraq. And it won't even involve the Iraqi army.
In the so far unsuccessful haggling to bribe Turkey into the coalition, the United States acquiesced in the deluded Turkish plan to intervene in Kurdish lands in northern Iraq. So Turkish army trucks are rumbling along toward Iraq on roads in this rugged and remote area of southeastern Turkey, carrying tanks and artillery and pausing only to confiscate film from journalists who photograph them.
Many Kurds hate Turks with the kind of enmity steeped in blood and ripened by centuries of antagonism, and in the confusion of war some Kurd will surely seize the opportunity to toss a grenade into a truck full of Turkish troops. That's when Turkish and Kurdish units will begin slaughtering each other.
The unfolding mess in northern Iraq is a reminder that if we invade Iraq, we are stepping into an immensely complex region of guns, clans and hostilities that we only dimly understand. The White House thinks it can choreograph the warfare, but if we can't control effete gavel-wielding diplomats on the familiar turf of the United Nations, how will we manage feuding troops with mortars in the mountains of northern Iraq?
The nightmare is that the Turks, Kurds, Iraqis and Americans will all end up fighting over the oil fields of Kirkuk or Mosul. The Americans plan to get there first to seize the oil fields and avert a broader conflict, but in the chaos of war that may not be possible. Turkey is terrified that Iraqi Kurds will emerge from a war with access to oil to finance a viable Kurdistan _ which they say could become a base for more Kurdish terrorism in Turkey.
"If Kurds try to advance to Kirkuk or Mosul, then nothing can stop the Turks, not even the Americans," said Ilter Turan, a political science professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul.
Haluk Sahin, a prominent Istanbul journalist, added: "If American security is so important that it will fight 10,000 miles from home, then what about Turkish security? For Turkey, this is right across our border."
"Kurds are always in conflict," explained Mursel Karacam, a 40-year-old chestnut vendor in Istanbul. "We would go in and teach them how to be civilized, how to live in peace."
Oh? Teach the Kurds peace at gunpoint? Some Turks seem to have the same problem as some Americans _ they have been so traumatized by terrorism (whether by Kurds or by al-Qaida), they are determined to go abroad with guns blazing, without recognizing that artillery may not always help, and without acknowledging that the rest of the world does not accept the nobility of their intentions.
The United States, desperate to get basing rights for its troops in Turkey, agreed that Turkey should enter northern Iraq _ which is like hiring the Bloods to patrol a Crips neighborhood. Then Turkey's Parliament turned down the proposal for up to 62,000 U.S. troops anyway, despite our bribe of $6-billion in direct aid. At this point, the White House would probably like to see more democracy in Iraq and less in Turkey.
Frankly, it's just as well the Turks turned us down. That vote consolidated Turkish democracy, which we need to encourage as a model for the Islamic world. And as part of the deal, we would have escorted the Turkish foxes into the Kurdish henhouse.
Unfortunately, as the Turkish military convoys show, the foxes are planning to visit the hens anyway _ even though the United States now discourages unilateral Turkish intervention in Iraq. We need to make the point much more firmly: Whether Turkey accepts the U.S. troop presence or not, it's hard to think of a worse idea than Turkey moving into Kurdistan, unless it would be Turkey's simultaneously providing "peacekeeping" in Armenia.
Tensions are growing, with Iranian-armed fighters entering Kurdistan and threatening to fight not just Saddam Hussein but also the Turks. Our allies could be too busy disemboweling each other to take on Hussein's troops. And the United States, as one American living in Turkey puts it, "has no clue of the hatreds it's walking into."
When the White House looks at Iraq, all it sees is hidden weaponry. It never notices the seething complexities in which we are about to embed our young men and women.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a New York Times columnist.
New York Times