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Sadler: U.S. allies could 'be at each other's throats'

From Brent Sadler

CNN Correspondent Brent Sadler
CNN Correspondent Brent Sadler

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•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
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ERBIL, Iraq (CNN) -- The Kurds who control a semi-autonomous enclave in northern Iraq are expected to be a key U.S. ally in a war with Iraq. But there have been long-simmering tensions between the Kurds and neighboring Turkey, which is considering whether it will host thousands of U.S.-coalition troops in the event of war on Iraq.

In the past week or so there has been a rising tide of anger among the Kurds in the northern Iraqi enclave -- that's the self-rule enclave that came into effect after the last Persian Gulf war.

The Kurds are very concerned that if the United States uses the northern area for a northern front to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States will bring in the Turkish military with them.

Despite the long-running history of bad relations, mistrust and suspicions between the Kurds and the Turks, there have been important trade links between Turkey and northern Iraq for the past 10 or 12 years.

There has been a very lucrative oil-smuggling deal that has enriched both the Turkish coffers and the Kurdistan political parties here. The Kurdistan Democratic Party has overseen the transportation of Iraqi oil through its zone and levied taxes on the shipments totaling about $1 million per day, according to Kurdish sources.

Turkey's own hard-hit economy, meanwhile, has benefited from the several hundred tankers of oil that have passed from northern Iraq into Turkey for the past several years. Kurdish sources say this has been a trading arrangement that both sides have exploited to their own advantage and the operation has continued more or less unabated until now. Incidentally, a bridge that connects Turkey to northern Iraq was closed just a few days ago by Turkish authorities, further straining relations.

Despite the trade that was going on, politically and militarily there has been a lot of mistrust on the Kurdish side. Both major political parties in northern Iraq fear the Turks intend to smash their gains in some 12-years of self-rule. Turkey, on the other hand, suspects the northern Iraqi Kurds harbor ambitions to declare independence in the chaos of a war. Turkey is also adamant that independence-minded Kurds in northern Iraq should not have any opportunity to inflame relations between Ankara and the Kurds in southern Turkey.

There have been about several thousand Turkish troops here for the past five or six years as part of a deal between the Turks and the Kurds. The deal gives the Turks some border protection from another Kurdish faction, an extremist terrorist organization called the Kurdish Workers' Party, which is waging a war of attrition against Turkish forces in southeast Turkey.

The deal could well collapse if the Americans bring in the Turks as part of a liberation force against Saddam Hussein.

A meeting of opposition leaders in the past few days came out with a unified statement warning the Turks that it would be seen as unwanted military intervention.

Kurdish leaders have been talking about resisting, possibly by force of arms, a Turkish intervention. Some of the leaders have said that if the Turks come in here, the Kurds would lose 12 years of freedom from Saddam Hussein and see it replaced with Turkish occupation.

So American troops here would be given the red carpet treatment, Turkish military troops would not. They would be resisted, say Kurdish military leaders, and could possibly be fired on by the population.

There have been several demonstrations in Iraqi Kurdistan in recent days. People are saying that if the Turks come in there will be bloodshed.

So, this is a very, very disturbing issue here. It means two of America's allies Turkey and the Kurds could be at each other's throats as America leads a war to depose Saddam Hussein.

There is also concern here that as the military buildup goes ahead, Saddam Hussein could lash out with some unpredictable military action.

There also is a lot of talk about chemical weapons that Saddam Hussein's military might have. The Kurds have long memories of what happened in 1988 when Iraqi forces bombed the town of Halabja, near the Iranian border, and killed some 5,000 Kurds with chemical weapons.

The Kurds say they have no medicine, no protective gear, no way of coping with a chemical attack.

I have seen preparations going on at one disused airstrip in Kurdistan that is clearly being prepared as a possible staging post for U.S. heavy-lift transporters should the Turkish Parliament deny permission for U.S. troops to launch an attack from inside Turkey.

Events are happening on the ground here that Kurds can relate to. They want to see Iraq liberated. As far as they are concerned, it's not a question of if a war should begin, it's when a war should begin.

We have not seen any evidence of panic buying. We have seen some shortages of diesel fuel along the border area with Turkey. It is certainly tense in the northern Kurdish towns close to the border with Turkey.

In terms of resistance, some Kurds have talked about arming. There is an arms market in Erbil, and while you do have to have a license from the local authorities -- one of the political parties -- to get a gun, it's still fairly easy.

Gun salesmen say there has been an increase in sales, particularly of Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades.

There are clearly some Kurds that are capable of forming resistance groups should they decide to oppose what they would see as a Turkish occupation.

But a lot of this, of course, could also be bluster and rhetoric.

It would be very difficult for the Kurds to provoke a bloody conflict with the Turks at the same time the Americans were waging a war to the south.

And it would be difficult for the United States to simply push the Turks away when the U.S. has clearly said Turkey should participate and facilitate the liberation of Iraq.

Nevertheless, it is still a precarious and difficult situation.

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