Turk sanctions on N Iraq may stoke Kurd separatism

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HABUR, Turkey, Oct 31 (Reuters) Ankara's threatened economic measures against Iraq would drain sorely needed money from Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast and stoke social tensions that could in turn fuel Kurdish separatism, trade leaders say.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's cabinet is due to decide today what measures to take against groups backing separatist Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq after Turkey's National Security Council (MGK) last week recommended action.

The MGK's intended target was widely seen as the autonomous Kurdish administration of Masoud Barzani, which has infuriated Ankara by refusing to clamp down on the rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Among measures mooted by members of the ruling AK Party are cutting off electricity to northern Iraq and halting or slowing traffic at Habur border gate. But this would hurt Turkey too.

''If they close the Habur border gate, the region will explode and you can easily see an increase in terrorism in the region,'' said Halil Balkan, head of the chamber of industry and commerce in Sirnak, near the Iraqi border in southeast Turkey.

Nearly 60 per cent of the region gains some income from the transport of goods. In Sirnak province alone, some 28,000 trucks are registered for international transport, Balkan said.

These are telling statistics in a region blighted by decades of separatist violence. Unemployment in the southeast is officially 15 per cent, against a national average of 10 per cent, but economists say the real figure is probably much higher.

LINES OF TRUCKS At Habur, the only border gate between Turkey and Iraq, trucks line up for more than a kilometre. They ferry some 3 billion dollar worth of goods annually into northern Iraq, whose construction boom relies heavily on Turkish cement and steel.

Local sources say the Ankara government is deliberately reducing traffic because of opposition pressure. This could not be confirmed, but traffic through the gate has fallen to an average 851 trucks a day from 2,300 in 2005.

Still, the traffic is vital for southeast Turkey, many of whose residents work as drivers criss-crossing the region.

''When companies are owned in other provinces, people there don't want to drive the trucks through an area they consider dangerous. That's why trucking is so important to this area,'' said Hasari Elci, an official from a local trucking cooperative.

Combat helicopters again pounded PKK positions in southeast Turkey yesterday, near the border. Ankara is weighing the costs of a possible full-scale military incursion into northern Iraq, despite strong opposition from Washington and Baghdad.

''It's already difficult to meet people's needs here. If you close the border you leave the southeastern provinces hungry and hunger brings terrorism,'' said Elci.

''People say it's about the PKK, but it's not. It's about jobs, it's about being hungry. Of course people are going to fight against a state they think has forgotten about them,'' said Ahmet Babat, a villager in the province.

The PKK launched its armed campaign for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984, scaring off investors and over time killing off the traditional farming and livestock industries.

More than 30,000 people have died in PKK-linked violence.

Some parts of the southeast have seen a tentative economic blossoming since the 1999 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan ushered in a series of PKK ceasefires. Even today, the violence is much less intense than in the 1980s and 1990s.

Erdogan's AK Party won more than 50 per cent of the regional vote in July elections on the back of economic development and promises to bring electricity to every house.

Gaziantep city leads development in the southeast, selling 2.5 billion dollars of goods a year and exporting to 140 countries, said chamber of industry secretary general Kursat Goncu.

''Gaziantep won't be affected by the closure, it has a lot of alternatives. But the region itself will be hurt because of the movement of construction materials and food products,'' he said.

''This won't be the first time they have closed the border.

You have to ask yourself: Did it solve anything? Back then crime increased, terrorism increased,'' said Balkan.


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