The conference held in Turkey on Tuesday, December 24, between Israel’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon and Turkish army chief Gen. Hilimi Ozkok, wrapped up the arrangements made by the US, Israel and Turkey for concerted action in the approaching war with Iraq. The operations of their air and missile defenses, as well as their air and naval forces, will be closely synchronized under arrangements that have also made provision against Syria and the Hizballah joining the conflict.
A second key visitor to Turkey Tuesday was Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, whose Patriotic Union of Kurdistan-PUK fighters have been fighting tooth and nail in the past two weeks to fend off the bid by a pro-Saddam force made up of fundamentalist Kurdish Ansar al Islam, al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence officers, for control of the Halabjah region in northeast Iraq. The pro-Saddam is effectively in control of the Halabjah-Suleimaniyeh highway east of the big oil city of Kirkuk, a circumstance of major strategic implications for the coming turn of events in northern Iraq.
DEBKAfile’s military sources report that Wednesday, December 25, Talabani is to be joined in Turkey by his former rival and fellow chief of the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party-KDP. Together with Turkish political and military leaders and US representatives, they will try and hammer out an historic Turkish-Kurdish accord based on a text drafted in Washington.
Its key elements are:
A. The Kurdish autonomous government of northern Iraq will grant 70,000 Turkish troops of the 2nd and 3rd Corps free passage through its territory for the Turkish push towards the big northern Iraqi oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.
B. While transiting this enclave, Turkish troops will show every respect for Kurdish autonomy, thereby also conferring tacit recognition on the part of Ankara.
C. The Turkish contingents will seize control the two oil cities with the support of Iraqi ethnic Turkoman units, who will be said to have risen up against Saddam Hussein’s domination of their region. For the moment, the Kurds will not press claims to Iraqi oilfields.
D. Turkey will then proceed to create an autonomous Turkoman entity stretching from northern to central Iraq up to the approaches to Baghdad.
E. The United States and Turkey will foster political, defensive and economic cooperation between the Kurdish and Turkoman self-governing provinces and guarantee their security. This clause indicates that a portion of North Iraq’s oil revenues will be channeled to the Kurdish province.
In advance of this conference, the Turkish army was placed Tuesday, December 24, on a high state of preparedness and the 2nd and 3d corps deployed along the Iraqi border in battle array.
According to DEBKAfile’s military sources, the successful outcome of the three-way parley on this document will open the way for a possible Turkish invasion of northern Iraq and its advance on the oil cities without waiting for the general American offensive to begin on other fronts.
A big question still hangs over Saddam Hussein’s response to a Turkish invasion. Two options are evident: 1. Since, anyway, most of northern Iraq has been under Kurdish control for some years, the Iraqi ruler could ignore the Turkish invasion and concentrate on the defenses of Baghdad and Tikrit. He will then have to find a way of telling the Iraqi people that the North has fallen into the hands of “insurgents”.
2. He could open up warfronts elsewhere, striking out for instance against American troop concentrations in the Persian Gulf, Kuwait, Jordan or Israel.
Gen. Yaalon’s trip to Turkey on Tuesday was no doubt intended to buttress the western flank of the Turkish military operation. In this regard, keeping the Syrian air force on the ground is deemed of paramount importance. The Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s disclosure in a Channel Two TV interview Tuesday night, December 24, of information that Iraq is hiding some of its chemical and biological weapons in Syria to keep them from UN inspectors, is of relevance to this objective. Although he stressed that the information needs verifying, Sharon’s choice of this moment to make the information public will be taken in Damascus as a hands-off warning against interfering with the Turkish advance into Iraq.
Our military sources draw attention to the secret military pact between Syria and Iraq, first revealed by DEBKAfile in 2001, which permits Iraqi military units in the event of war crossing into Syria and using it as a base for striking at Israel. The information Sharon revealed indicates that Baghdad has invoked that treaty by sending units across into Syria to hide some of its unconventional weapons.
There is a certain amount of controversy in Israel over the relative perils presented by various enemies. Labor leaders this week accused Sharon of fomenting an Iraqi war scare as an electioneering stratagem, while the prime minister’s Likud retorted that Labor was trifling with national security for its own campaign. Some Israeli military experts argue that the Syrian-backed HIzballah missile deployment on the Lebanese border poses a more tangible threat than Iraq. Appearing before the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee on Tuesday, December 24, Israel’s military intelligence chief, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Zeevi offered as his judgment that al Qaeda presents a greater danger than Baghdad.
His point is valid. Even an Iraqi missile attack would be less damaging to a country the size of Israel than a radiological, chemical, biological or mass-murder attack by terrorists in a crowded town center, of the kind of which al Qaeda is capable. Terrorism on this scale would have a lasting and profoundly traumatic effect on a small country. Most Israeli military leaders agree with Zeevi that Palestinian and al Qaeda terrorism is potentially more destructive than an Iraqi missile strike. What is not generally admitted by the experts however is the possibility of al Qaeda and the Palestinians acting as Iraq’s surrogates. This possibility could become palpable much sooner than generally expected should the Turkish army lead the American campaign against Iraq by marching into the north.