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N.Iraq's economic reliance on Turkey under threat

By David Clarke

IRAQ/TURKEY BORDER (Reuters) - Turkish trucks stretch as far as the eye can see at the border with northern Iraq.

The crossing outside the town of Zakhu is an economic artery for Iraq because it is the safest route for imports and it is just as vital for thousands of Turkish truck drivers, who ply the route each week.

The drivers are concerned by the growing possibility of an attack by Turkish forces against Kurdish guerrillas based just over the Iraqi border.

"This is Turkey's throat," said one Turkish truck driver, waiting to return to his country.

"Thousands of businesses send products from factories to Iraq. If the border closes, the factories will close too and we will lose our jobs."

Turkish exports to Iraq were worth $2.6 billion in 2006 and the Turkish influence in northern Iraq, where the economy is booming, is plain.

Trucks grinding south into the city of Dahuk are laden with cement, steel, cars, pick-up trucks, pipes, aluminum, and fuel.

The signs for roadside restaurants are in Turkish. In a vast supermarket in Dahuk, the butter, cigarettes, cheese, and sweets are all produced in Turkey. 

Turkey's government is under pressure at home to strike at separatist guerrillas hiding in the northern Iraqi mountains who have ramped up attacks on Turkish soldiers this year.

The Turkish army has been massing on the border and now has the all-clear from the government to cross into Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) rebels.

But there is an international push to stave off a conflict that Washington fears could throw the region into chaos, threaten oil supplies and set back stabilization attempts in Iraq after the U.S invasion in 2003.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has threatened sanctions on exports to Iraq to increase the pressure on Baghdad. The truck drivers say this could hurt Turks as much as the Iraqi government.

"This road is our bread," said Hassan, waiting to return to Turkey after delivering fuel to Kirkuk.

"If it's closed, we will suffer."


On the northern outskirts of Dahuk, there is a building frenzy. Apartment blocks, residential estates, hotels and office blocks are shooting up and signs of the region's growing wealth are everywhere.

In the supermarket, consumer goods such as 46-inch flat-screen TVs, Monte Cristo cigars, fridges, exercise bikes, designer clothes, a home gymnasium and grandfather clocks are on sale. And all have come through the funnel north of Zakhu. 

"There's nothing you can think of that we don't bring in," said another Turkish driver, who declined to give his name.

"This border is important for the Turkish economy, people would lose jobs there. They should solve the problem with diplomacy and meetings.

"If there's a war, both sides will lose and people will die," said the driver, who makes the trip to Iraq at least twice a month.

Standing on the bridge that separates the two countries, there is a never-ending stream of trucks.

According to a senior customs official, about 700 cross into Iraq each day but they could take far more. In 1998, about 3,000 crossed daily, he said, but Turkish officials are trying to stem the flow.

"It's a political issue. The Turkish don't want the Kurdish area to thrive and develop," said the official, who declined to be named, in his office at the Ibraheem Khaleel border complex.

Analysts say Turkey is wary of the largely autonomous northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan because if it does become an enduring success it may spur calls by Kurds in southeastern Turkey for their own autonomous region.

"They'll do anything to destroy us," the senior customs official said. "It's not because of the PKK -- the PKK is nothing, a few hundred fighters, so why do they need 60,000 troops? They want to destroy the progress of Kurdistan.

"This door is not only for the Kurdish region, it's for all of Iraq. And most of the goods that come from Turkey are made by Turkish companies.

"So the big loser will be the Turkish."

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