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Turkey: Cheney To Discuss Iraq, Turkish Command Of Security Forces In Afghanistan

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney arrives in Turkey today to discuss possible military action against Iraq. Turkey, a key Muslim ally of Washington in the Afghan campaign, has said it opposes extending the antiterror drive to its southern neighbor, citing concerns about its frail economy and for political stability in its restive Kurdish provinces.

Prague, 19 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney arrives in Turkey today on the last leg of a 12-nation trip to drum up support for Washington's campaign against terrorism.

Cheney arrives from Israel after a nine-day tour that brought him successively to Britain, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

During his stay in Ankara, the U.S. envoy is expected to successively meet President Ahmed Necdet Sezer, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, and Army Chief of Staff General Huseyin Kivrikoglu.

Talks are expected to focus on possible U.S. military action against Iraq and on the future leadership of Afghanistan's International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.

Britain, which currently leads the ISAF, is keen to hand over command before its mandate expires in June. Turkey had expressed an interest in taking over, but it has since backtracked, citing concerns about the scope of the ISAF's mandate.

Ecevit's coalition cabinet, which is battling the country's worst economic crisis since World War II, says it also wants firm assurances that the international community will share the financial burden implied by such an operation.

Finally, some officials in Ankara have expressed concern at the recent upsurge of violence in eastern Afghanistan, saying unrest in the region should be stamped out before Turkey -- which already has some 260 soldiers on the ground -- assumes the leadership of the 4,500-strong ISAF.

U.S. and British representatives held talks with Turkish officials a week ago, but no agreement has been reached.

Addressing Britain's House of Commons yesterday, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said negotiations with Turkey will nonetheless continue: "Our talks with Turkey, which has expressed an interest in taking on [the leadership of the ISAF], continue. It would not be appropriate to say too much before these talks are concluded, but certainly the atmosphere in the high-level discussion between the United Kingdom, the United States and the Turks in Ankara last week was extremely positive."

The CNN-Turk private television channel late yesterday said Britain and the U.S. have finally succeeded in overcoming Turkey's reservations, notably by pledging financial support, but the report cannot be confirmed.

By all accounts, Turkish officials want to get clarification over Washington's plans regarding Iraq before they agree to take over the ISAF command. NATO-member Turkey, a key U.S. ally in the region, fears that an attack on its southern neighbor would jeopardize its efforts to overcome its current economic crisis and would stir Kurdish separatism in its restive southeastern provinces.

Turkish officials claim the Gulf War and international trade sanctions imposed on Iraq have cost Ankara some $40 billion in lost revenue.

In 1990, Turkey was the first regional country to join the U.S.-led international campaign to drive Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Then President Turgut Ozal even briefly considered committing troops to overthrow President Saddam Hussein's regime in a bid to boost Turkey's role as a Western stronghold in the Middle East. But strong opposition from the Turkish military forced him to revise his plans.

Since the end of the Gulf War, Ankara has sought to restore economic ties with Baghdad, bringing the two countries' trade volume to $1 billion in 2001, compared to an average annual $2.5 billion before the conflict. Earlier in March, a Turkish business delegation led by Foreign Trade Under Secretary Kursad Tuzmen signed contracts worth $300 million to sell goods and services to Iraq.

Speaking to reporters during the European Union summit in Barcelona on 15 March, Ecevit reiterated his opposition to any strike against Iraq, saying that Turkey's economy would "suffer a lot" from any such move. Ecevit also dismissed U.S. claims that Iraq poses a threat to its neighbors.

Washington accuses Baghdad of producing weapons of mass destruction, and U.S. President George W. Bush recently listed Iraq -- along with North Korea and Iran -- as supporting international terrorism, labeling the three an "axis of evil."

The U.S. insists that United Nations weapons inspectors should be allowed to return to Iraq after more than three years of absence. Despite Iraqi officials' claims that they are willing to settle the issue through direct dialogue with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in April, Washington remains inflexible.

There are still uncertainties, however, over the Bush administration's plans regarding Iraq. Addressing reporters earlier today in Jerusalem at a joint press briefing with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Cheney once again remained evasive about Washington's intentions, saying the U.S. will continue negotiations with regional governments on how best to deal with the "Iraqi threat."

"There's been great press speculation about the possibility of a military action against Iraq. I have said repeatedly throughout the course of my travels in response to those questions -- one, no such decision has been made, and secondly, we never speculate about prospective future operations," Cheney said.

On 12 March, Turkey's "Milliyet" columnist Derya Sazak speculated that Cheney's insistence in meeting Chief of Staff Kivrikoglu could suggest that Cheney might discuss details of a military action against Iraq.

Turkey's NTV private television channel yesterday reported that Turkish diplomats and military planners held consultations recently and decided that Ankara will reject any U.S. demand to contribute troops to a possible attack against Iraq. NTV quoted unidentified Turkish officials as saying that Ankara might, however, consider any request for logistical support under certain, as yet unspecified, conditions.

This report, which cannot be confirmed, reflects a common view among Turkish analysts that, should the U.S. decide to take action against Saddam, Ankara will have to contribute in some way. Its southern Incirlik air base is already being used by U.S. and British warplanes to enforce a "no-fly" zone in northern Iraq. Experts point out that Ankara is indebted to Washington for it support in securing $16 billion in international loans to rescue its battered economy.

Yet Turkey might try to negotiate its support in a bid to minimize the possible consequences of any U.S. military action.

One of Ankara's main concerns is to ensure that unrest in mostly Kurd-populated northern Iraq would not impact its own Kurdish provinces. Turkey also wants to avoid a repetition of 1991, when an estimated 500,000 Kurds attempted to cross the border during the Gulf war -- a move that eventually led to the creation of Iraq's "no-fly" zone.

The leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani -- which has controlled about one-third of Iraq's northern Kurdish provinces since the end of the Gulf war -- arrived in Ankara today shortly before Cheney for talks with government officials.

During a previous visit to the Turkish capital on 5 March, Talabani expressed his concerns about any violent move to topple Saddam's regime from the outside, saying he favors democratic changes involving forces within the country.

On 27 February, Talabani's main rival in the region -- Democratic Party of Kurdistan leader Mas'ud Barzani -- warned that his movement will not support an attempt to overthrow Saddam unless it knows what the alternative to his regime will be.

Both Kurdish leaders have made it clear they do not want to be assigned the same role as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan -- a mere auxiliary force in a U.S. military operation to depose Saddam.

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