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Implications and ramifications after Kurdish protesters enter Turkish base in KRG, northern Iraq

Kurdish protesters gathered outside of a Turkish army base on January 26 in northern Iraq's Kurdish region. This area along the border has been the center of conflict between Turkish armed forces and the Kurdistan Workers Party since the 1990s. On January 23 several Kurds, locals say six at least, were killed in Turkish airstrikes near Diraluk. However protests on January 23 resulted in the burning of Turkish military vehicles and the injury of seven protesters. Two protesters were reported killed. This serious escalation could have ramifications for Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government-Turkey relations and Turkey's role in northern Iraq.

On Saturday demonstrators gathered near Diraluk in a town called Shiladze where they held banners protesting the Turkey-PKK conflict and calling on both sides not to carry their fight into the area. "We demand that the Turkish army and PKK forces take their political contention to their territories and respect the sovereignty of the regional government."

The locals, including women, marched to the Turkish military base, one of at least eleven bases that Turkey maintains in the mountainous region of northern Iraq. This area is under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government but the PKK and Turkey both have bases in the region. The leading parties of the KRG, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) both have complex relations with Turkey's presence in the region. Despite difficult memories of the civil war of the 1990s between the Kurdish parties, and animosity between the PKK and KDP, neither the KDP or PUK have the political support to find a way to remove either the PKK or Turkish military from the KRG region.

Turkey has carried out increasing numbers of airstrikes against the PKK in recent years in northern Iraq after a ceasefire ended in 2015. In 2017 Turkish jets bombed Sinjar and in August 2018 they killed a PKK leader attending an event in Sinjar. In December they struck alleged PKK posts near Makhmour camp.

Protests against the Turkish military presence have been rare. Iraq expressed concern over a Turkish base in Bashiqa in 2016 and 2017 and in 2018 Iraq summoned the Turkish ambassador after the Makhmour strike. The KRG is more reticent to condemn Turkish actions because trade flows north from the KRG to Turkey and because of the sensitive period of KRG-Turkey relations after the independence referendum in September 2017. Turkey condemned the referendum, closing KDP offices in Turkey and ending flights to Sulimaniyeh. Since then the PUK has appeared to patch up some relations with Turkey, but sources say that KDP-Turkey relations have not returned to the levels prior to September 2017. There had been regular high level visits since 2010, including in 2013, 2014 and 2017. The Kurdish flag was even raised during KRG visits in 2017.

The protests that began on Saturday were initially peaceful. Some have suggested that they were encouraged to grow through instigators our outside influence, a reference to the PKK. At the same time critics have condemned the KRG response, which has condemned the killing of civilians but also condemned the protest violence.

Sources say that this protest now presents several challenges for the region. The sources who closely monitored the situation say that this is the first major protest like this since 2007 when Turkey sought to move more forces into the KRG. The KRG's security forces, the Peshmerga and Asayish are put in a difficult position. The Turkish bases do not have riot control troops and to prevent violence the KRG is called upon to reduce tensions. "Turkish soldiers were at risk at the base," a source says.

However locals say that while airstrikes are relatively frequent and Turkey has been fighting the PKK in the area for decades along the border, the killing of civilians was rare. "Airstrikes don’t target populated areas but rather areas controlled by PKK." However many civilians who have no relation to the PKK often enter rural areas to farm, fish, hunt or tend bees. Airstrikes mistakenly harm these locals, some of whome are armed because it is common to travel in rural areas with an AK-47.

The towns in this area along the border with Turkey consist of villagers who were driven from the more immediate border region by fighting in the 1980s. Some were forcibly re-settled during the Saddam Hussein era. Saddam had forts in the mountains and in Dohuk. Some of these locals had sought to return to their villages after the 1991 uprising against Saddam, but found the PKK had come to dominate areas along the border. Therefore the villagers remained in the valley between two mountain ranges along the border. This is the valley where the road connects Diraluk to Shiladze. It is also near Amedi, the historic town. Many villages and towns in this area, all the way down to Dohuk, support the KDP in elections. However around 30 percent or more of the residents of Shiladze tend to vote for the local Islamic party KIU. This party has closer relations to the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore the AKP in Turkey as well. The political make up of the area therefore is not supportive of the PKK. But the villagers are angry about the airstrikes.

The civilians in this area are also impoverished and the region lacks investment. Some of this is blamed on the PKK-Turkey conflict. They are angry that the conflict continues to destabilize their region and reduce investment in the area. When they go into the mountains to tend bees or farm and make a living they risk being harmed in airstrikes and clashes. This boiled over on January 26.

The protesters initially entered the Turkish base and were relatively peaceful. Some youths threw rocks and the soldiers fired in the air. Then the protesters burned the vehicles and the base. The soldiers shot seven men in the legs and killed one protester. Turkey dispatched jets to do overflights. One more protester was killed by nightfall. Then local leaders came and sought to calm the tensions.

The locals were protesting the PKK presence as well but there are no fixed PKK bases to target with protests. "The problem is PKK hides in mountains. People are also angry at KRG and KDP because KDP cannot find solutions for them. They are prevented from going to old villages and don’t get salaries or investment. Instability causes lack of investment. KDP may pay some price," one resident said. Turkey will also pay a price after the clashes. It is not clear yet what the outcome will be but it may redraw some of the considerations about Turkey's ability to act with impunity in northern Iraq and how the KRG relates to the bases. Sources say they don't think there will be more protests but they urge the KRG and Turkey to find a solution to the low level conflict. Hundreds of villages remain abandoned along the border and tens of thousands of people have been unable to return for decades.

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