By DOUGLAS FRANTZ
MARCH 30, 2001
The New York Times
Deep in the dusty southeastern corner of Turkey, closer to Baghdad than to Istanbul, a line of 200 aging tanker trucks stretches for half a mile along the highway as drivers wait to unload Iraqi diesel fuel at a depot run by the Turkish government.
The trucks are returning from Iraq with full tanks on the last leg of a journey that openly flouts the United Nations economic embargo against Baghdad. It is sanctions-busting smuggling regulated and taxed by the Turkish government and tolerated by the United Nations and the United States.
Estimates on the volume of Iraqi oil and diesel fuel passing through Habur Gate, the only legal crossing between Iraq and Turkey, range from $300 million to $600 million a year. Western diplomats calculate that the illicit business puts $120 million a year in the pocket of President Saddam Hussein.
''This trade is outside the sanctions system,'' said a senior Turkish government official, who spoke on the condition his name not be used. ''But I would say it is indispensable for Turkey, and we are sensitive not to allow it to help Iraq acquire weapons of mass destruction.''
There is, however, no way to monitor what Iraq does with the revenue.
Western diplomats say the trade has increased as oil prices have climbed. They justify turning a blind eye because the money helps the battered economy in this volatile region of Turkey, an important American ally. The trade also is the chief source of income for northern Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party, which opposes Mr. Hussein.
Because of the political considerations, the smuggling continues and underscores a quandary confronting the Bush administration as it shapes its sanctions policy.
The United States and Britain have been under pressure from other members of the United Nations Security Council to ease the sanctions. One contention is that the borders are porous anyway; experts say illegal goods and oil flow overland from Jordan and Syria and by boats in the Persian Gulf. Another argument is that the sanctions have inflicted the most damage on the Iraqi people and neighboring countries.
Turkey has been hard hit by the embargo. Iraq was not only a major trading partner, but also a conduit for getting Turkish agricultural products into the Middle East. Turkish officials say the embargo has cost the economy $35 billion to $40 billion, and the country's current economic crisis has increased pressure to expand trade with Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is trying to develop sanctions that will allow more consumer goods into Iraq and tighten the rein on Mr. Hussein's ability to buy weapons. But any attempt to loosen controls is likely to face opposition from hard-liners at the Pentagon and conservative Republicans in Congress.
Edward S. Walker Jr., assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, traveled to Ankara this month to assure Turkish officials that the administration is studying ways to reduce the impact of sanctions on Iraq's neighbors. ''It's going to mean that we're going to have to change the way we deal with the border,'' Mr. Walker said.
Iraq is allowed to sell oil under United Nations supervision only through a pipeline to Ceyhan on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, and by ship through Mina al Bakr, a Persian Gulf port. Proceeds go into an account administered by the United Nations to buy food, medicine and other goods and pay war reparations.
To gain more control over its oil revenues, Iraq has been sending oil through an unauthorized pipeline to Syria. It also increased sales of low-grade fuel oil and diesel fuel to the truckers who ply their trade through Habur Gate.
Turkish and Western government officials as well as truckers said the oil and diesel fuel were sold by Iraq to the Kurdistan Peoples Party, despite its opposition to Baghdad. The party is an independent force that controls the border on the Iraqi side.
Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish party, marks up the price, adds a tax and resells it to truckers. The revenue helps Mr. Barzani cement his control over the border area and makes it relatively prosperous, diplomats said.
A 31-year-old Turkish truck driver said he paid 14 cents a liter for diesel fuel in Iraq, including a 2-cent tax. He said he often waited at least three days to load because the lines were so long.
Once loaded, truckers said, 2,000 or more trucks are often lined up at the border because Turkey allows only 450 tankers a day back into the country. Turkish officials said the limit was necessary so trucks can be inspected for other smuggling.
The volume of tankers remains far below pre-embargo levels, and the landscape is dotted with thousands of rusting tankers, described by an official as ''martyrs to the embargo.'' Officials estimate that 40,000 to 50,000 trucks now haul oil and diesel fuel from Iraq into Turkey.
By 1999, the illegal trade accounted for a quarter of Turkey's diesel fuel consumption, and that was when the government stepped in to institutionalize the smuggling with new regulations. Truckers who had made at least a trip a month were limited to one every three months. Instead of selling diesel fuel on the open market, they were required to unload at the government depot in nearby Silopi and pay taxes.
The government profited two ways -- by taxing the fuel and reselling it to distributors at a higher price. The depot collected $74 million in taxes in its first four months in late 1999, but officials said more recent figures were not available.
Customs inspections were also toughened. The diesel fuel or oil is weighed and tested and matched against a computerized list to make sure that the driver has not exceeded the allotted number of trips. Empty tankers and trucks hauling goods to Iraq also are inspected to make sure any Iraq-bound material complies with the sanctions.
''With our controls, it is almost impossible to get anything through,'' Abdullah Erin, the deputy governor who runs the customs gate, said as he strolled through a lot filled with trucks awaiting examination.
Mr. Erin and Huseyin Baskaya, the provincial governor, insisted that the trade operated within United Nations sanctions. Mr. Baskaya even said he was establishing a company to take part in the business, with profits earmarked for civic projects.
It is fiction. A senior Turkish official in Ankara acknowledged that the trade was outside the sanctions, though he defended its economic necessity.
The truckers chafe at the restrictions and taxes. They can earn $2,000 to $3,000 a year, a good income in the southeast, but it often must support several large families.
Any relaxation of sanctions would be welcomed in the region, where unemployment exceeds 60 percent. After years of civil war between the Turkish government and Kurdish separatists and the effects of the embargo, the biggest hope many see is opening the border, something unlikely to happen in the near future.
''Turkey is a loyal friend of the United States, and absolutely the embargo should be lifted so we can begin to make a living,'' said Kutbettin Arzu, an official with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Diyarbakir, the regional capital.
In the meantime, the line of trucks continues to run from Iraq to the Turkish depot in Silopi.
Correction: April 9, 2001, Monday A front-page article on March 30 about the smuggling of oil from Iraq to Turkey in violation of United Nations sanctions referred incorrectly in one passage to the Kurdish political party in Iraq, headed by Masoud Barzani, which resells oil and fuel that it buys from the Iraqi government. As noted elsewhere in the article, it is the Kurdistan Democratic Party, not the Kurdistan Peoples Party.