ERBIL, Iraq - The president of Iraq's Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, leader of the legendary Barzani clan, was angry - at Turkey and at the United States.
On Saturday, Turkey bombed Iraqi Kurdish villages, killing two civilians and sending hundreds fleeing; 300 Turkish soldiers later made a raid across the Iraqi border. The attacks were meant to target Turkish Kurdish separatists from the PKK terrorist movement, who are based in Iraq's northern mountains. The United States provided Turkey with the coordinates for the air strikes.
"We know Iraqi air space is under U.S. control," Barzani said bluntly on Monday in his well-guarded presidential office, when I asked him whom he blamed. Standing stiffly, in his signature red and white checked Kurdish turban and olive-drab fatigues, he added: "If there wasn't a [U.S.] green light, the Turks could not have carried out the attack." Barzani then turned down an invitation to lunch with Condoleezza Rice during her quick visit to Iraq.
So what's going on in Kurdistan, the most peaceful, booming region in Iraq? Is there a danger of a war in the north between two U.S. allies? Is America betraying the Kurds?
The answer to both questions is no (for now). Despite the tragic deaths, new possibilities have arisen in recent days that could help defuse Kurdish-Turkish tensions and peacefully resolve Kurdish claims to the contested, and oil-rich, city of Kirkuk. But for either to happen, the United States will have to act more strategically as a mediator than it did in the case of the Turkish bombs.
The air attack had as much to do with internal Turkish politics as it did with Turkish claims that the Kurdish regional government wasn't doing enough to root out the PKK. The issue has become caught up in tensions between a moderate Islamist Turkish government that seeks better relations with the Iraqi Kurds, and a secular Turkish military that feels it is losing ground and is looking for an issue to help it recoup.
In recent months, the Turkish military has massed tens of thousands of troops on the Iraq border. The invasion threat seems to have passed. But the Turkish military suspects leaders of the Kurdish regional government of harboring a desire for independence that would fuel Kurdish separatism in Turkey.
The Kirkuk issue plays into these fears. Many Turks believe the Kurds want to regain control of Kirkuk (a once-Kurdish city forcibly Arabized by Saddam Hussein) to use the city's oil wealth to finance statehood. Kurdish government leaders' strong denials don't convince them. Meantime, the failure to hold a referendum by the end of 2007 to resolve the status of Kirkuk - as called for by Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution - has turned the city into a new center of sectarian violence.
So why do I see a new chance for Kurdish-Turkish rapprochement?
Reason one: Now that the Turkish military has made its military point, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be better positioned to push for a diplomatic solution.
"The Turks did what they wanted to do, and we don't need any more tensions," I was told by the prime minister of the Kurdish regional government, Nechirvan Barzani. He hopes "after this there could be the beginning of dialogue with the Turks."
The Turkish government may be interested. The day before the air strikes, Emre Taner, chief of Turkey's national intelligence organization, visited Erbil on behalf of Erdogan and Turkish President Abdullah Gul. His message to top Kurdish leaders: The Turkish government wants good relations with the the Kurdish regional government, and it also wants the question of Kirkuk to be solved constitutionally.
Reason two: There is new hope for progress on Kirkuk. All parties have agreed to let the United Nations Mission for Iraq devise a way to implement Article 140 within six months. Stefan De Mistura, the impressive U.N. special representative to Iraq, has won Kurds' trust; he helped organize the return home of more than one million Iraqi Kurdish refugees from the mountains of Turkey after the 1991 Gulf War.
"The ticking bomb [of Kirkuk] still ticks," De Mistura told me in Erbil, "but we have put a new engine into the acceleration of the process, called the United Nations, which has the expertise and can provide legitimacy to the process." In this process, says De Mistura, "Turkey has to be an important part."
Indeed, the makings of Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement can already be seen in Erbil. The dusty, low-slung provincial capital is booming with construction, which is almost all done by Turkish firms using Turkish workers. Trade with and transport from Turkey is Kurdistan's lifeline.
But despite positive signs, the border dispute with Turkey could still explode. Having defused Turkish charges that we're soft on the PKK, the United States must now persuade the Turkish military that the issue can't be resolved by force.
"Turkey and the Kurds are both allies of the United States," says prime minister Nechirvan Barzani. "This issue should be a top [U.S.] priority for a solution. Don't open another front" in the north, he pleads, "just as the security situation is getting better in Iraq."