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Turkey: Analysts See Kurdish Complications In Deal With U.S.

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Turkey looks set to finally agree to allow American troops to be deployed in the country for possible use in an attack on neighboring Iraq. But Washington's deal with Ankara is already pointing out possible dangerous divisions on the ground in America's alliance to topple Saddam Hussein.

Washington, 26 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Already faced with worldwide opposition to a war in Iraq, Washington is now struggling to keep bickering among partners in its "anti-Saddam alliance" from spilling over into all-out violence.

Analysts say that an emerging deal allowing as many as 62,000 U.S. troops to deploy to southern Turkey could set the stage for a potential clash between pro-U.S. Turkish troops and Kurdish militias should Washington invade northern Iraq from Turkey in a bid to topple Saddam Hussein.

Besides providing Ankara with an aid package worth at least $15 billion, the deal would also reportedly concede to Turkey one of its main demands -- the right to send into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq tens of thousands of its own troops, ostensibly to prevent Kurdish refugees from flowing north in the event of war and secure it own borders.

But Turkey's real concern, said Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador and one of Washington's top experts on the Kurds, is to keep the Kurds from trying to establish an independent state during the chaos of war. This could reignite Kurdish separatism in Turkey.

"Since the Kurds control the North [of Iraq], there isn't going to be a refugee flow. The North is not going to be involved in the war; there won't be fighting there, very likely. And so it's pretty obvious to the Kurds, and I think their judgment in correct, that the Turkish purpose is to intimidate them," Galbraith said.

Ankara, which has long had some military presence in northern Iraq to hunt separatist Kurdish guerrillas, is also concerned about Kurds seeking to claim the oil-rich cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.

The Iraqi Kurds have vowed to respect the territorial integrity of Iraq and promised not to march on Mosul or Kirkuk. And yesterday, the Kurdish parliament in Arbil called on Washington to prevent Turkish troops in a war from marching into their area, which enjoys autonomy from Baghdad and is protected by U.S. and British jets.

But Bulent Aliriza, a Turkish-born analyst at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Kurds are unlikely to get their way. In fact, Aliriza said the deal -- expected to be voted on by the Turkish parliament this week -- apparently includes a U.S. pledge to prevent any Kurdish march into Mosul or Kirkuk.

But Aliriza told RFE/RL that the potential for clashes between Turks -- whom he believes will not be under Washington's direct command -- and Kurdish militias numbering more than 100,000 troops is high. "They can do the 'ostrich act' at the White House, but this is spinning out of control at the other end. Two would-be allies of the United States are slinging arrows at each other across the border, even before the war began," he said.

Galbraith, who in the 1980s helped to uncover and document Iraqi military atrocities against Kurds, had similar concerns. "If the Turkish army approaches Kurdish population centers, I'm very worried that there will be clashes, and the United States might have to be in the position of being peacekeepers between our Kurdish allies and our Turkish allies. And that will not be very helpful."

In an indication of just how sensitive the issue is, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has refused to discuss the military details of its offer to Ankara -- despite freely discussing the financial side of it, which reportedly includes at least $5 billion in grants and $10 billion in loan guarantees.

Asked at a briefing about Turkish troops occupying northern Iraq's Kurdish areas, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said simply, "The position of the United States is unequivocal -- that the territorial integrity of Iraq should be honored."

But Aliriza said Washington may be hard-pressed to live up to the concessions it appears to have made to Turkey, which Washington needs to launch a second front to bolster its main military thrust, expected to come from the Persian Gulf region.

Among the sticking points for the Bush administration, Aliriza said, is a demand that the Kurds return small arms provided to them by Washington for the conflict as soon as the war is over. "At the practical level, preventing a Kurdish entry into Mosul and Kirkuk, and even collecting the guns from the Kurdish guerrillas, is going to be very difficult to achieve. And of course, then the Turks may feel obliged or driven to react. It's this trying to balance the logistical requirements -- which means making concessions to the Turks -- and the operational need to work with the Kurds is just proving very difficult for this administration. And that's even before a single shot's been fired."

U.S. ships carrying arms, munitions, and supplies are waiting off the Turkish Mediterranean coast for the Turkish parliament to give the go-ahead to a motion submitted yesterday by the government. The motion reportedly calls for opening the country's ports and air bases to up to 62,000 "foreign troops" for six months, as well as 255 warplanes and 65 helicopters.

Aliriza said Turkey, whose new governing party with Islamic roots has opposed war, has demanded its troops outnumber U.S. forces going into Iraq. But Ankara, concerned about being viewed as a "regional bully," says it doesn't want its troops to fire a single shot in Iraq.

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