U.S. balancing act in Iraq

"THE TURKS need to move quickly, achieve their objective and get out," said George W. Bush at a February 28 press conference.

Apparently, Bush has no problem with setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq-as long as it applies to someone else.

On February 21, thousands of Turkish soldiers charged 20 miles into northern Iraq to attack some 500 rebel fighters who belong to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Initially, U.S. intelligence specialists provided support by helping Turkish helicopters and artillery target PKK outposts in the mountainous terrain where they were holed up, and Turkish military officials confidently proclaimed their intention to stay as long as necessary to kill every last PKK fighter.

But after a week, U.S. officials began calling for an end to the operation, and within a day, Turkey proclaimed success and began its withdrawal.

The quick reversal is the consequence of the contradiction facing the U.S. government in the region.

The U.S. is seeking to balance the aims of its longstanding ally Turkey, which wants to crush the forces fighting for self-determination for Kurds living in southern Turkey, with the risk of destabilizing the one region of Iraq that has been stable since the U.S. invasion five years ago.

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THE PKK's base of support is largely among Kurds living in Turkey, and in recent years, its fighters have sought refuge in Iraq from the Kurdish Regional Government-which has been a quasi-independent state under U.S. protection since the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

After the 2003 invasion, the U.S. divide-and-conquer policy in Iraq took for granted its support in the Kurdish north as it set out to displace the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein. This brought the Shia majority to power in Iraq, sparked a bloody civil war and dramatically enhanced the influence of Iran's Shia-dominated government.

Alarmed at Iran's growing regional strength, the U.S. sought a tactical alliance with Sunni militias-the very ones that served as the backbone of the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation-as a counterweight to the new Shia establishment.

This uneasy truce serves as the shaky basis for the U.S. claim that its "surge" of combat troops into Iraq last year worked. But as British journalist Patrick Cockburn points out, the short-term lull in the fighting masks a fundamental weakness that the U.S. can't resolve.

"In the long term, neither Sunni nor Shia Arabs want the Americans to stay in Iraq," Cockburn wrote on the CounterPunch Web site. "Hitherto, the only reliable American allies have been the Kurds, who are now discovering that Washington is not going to protect them against Turkey.

"Very little is holding Iraq together. The government is marooned in the Green Zone. Having declared the surge a great success, the U.S. military commanders need just as many troops to maintain a semblance of control now as they did before the surge."