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Turkey: Wrangles With Anti-Saddam Coalition Continue Over Troop Deployment In N. Iraq

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey and the United States have so far failed to allay each other's concerns over possible developments in Iraq's Kurdistan, with Washington warning Ankara not to send troops to the region for fear of renewed tension with local fighters. The European Union yesterday entered the fray, saying Turkey's insistence on dispatching soldiers across the Iraqi border could jeopardize its membership bid.

Prague, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States and Turkey have so far failed to resolve a festering row over the possible deployment of Turkish troops in northern Iraq's Kurdish areas.

Talks between U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Turkish Foreign Ministry officials ended inconclusively today in Ankara, with neither side appearing ready to compromise on the issue.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Khalilzad said discussions on this "complicated and difficult issue" would resume in the coming days. He gave no further details.

In an interview with Fox News Channel, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday reiterated Washington's opposition to any Turkish troop deployment in northern Iraq.

Addressing the British Parliament's House of Commons a few hours earlier, Prime Minister Tony Blair said his government -- Washington's main ally in the war on Iraq -- would not tolerate any large Turkish military deployment in the region.

"In relation to Turkey, it would be entirely unacceptable for there to be any incursion. That has been made very, very clear to the Turkish government and to the Turkish military. I believe that they have understood those messages that have been given not just by ourselves, but by the United States of America as well," Blair said.

But Turkey so far has turned a deaf ear to U.S. and British objections, stating that it reserves the right to deploy troops in northern Iraq whenever it feels it is necessary. "We are an independent country and we will decide for ourselves on this issue," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said yesterday.

Also yesterday, General Hilmi Ozkok, the Turkish Army's chief of staff, began a two-day inspection tour of units garrisoned in the country's southeast.

In remarks made before the House of Commons today, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called upon the Turkish leadership to refrain from any decision that might be perceived as aggression by Kurds in northern Iraq. "We continue to urge upon the Turkish government the maximum of restraint by them and an understanding that it would not serve their interests any more than it would serve the interests of those within the Kurdish area if there were to be any aggressive military action taken by Turkish forces," Straw said.

The Turkish parliament last week (20 March) approved a government motion allowing U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles to use national airspace for strikes on neighboring Iraq. Citing security concerns, the motion also paved the way for the deployment of an unspecified number of Turkish troops in Iraq's mainly Kurdish northern areas. Ankara claims the mission of these troops will be strictly humanitarian and defensive.

A text of the draft motion was released by Turkey's semiofficial Anadolu news agency prior to the parliamentary vote. It said, in part, that it was necessary for Ankara to send troops into the region in order to stem a potentially massive inflow of Kurdish refugees and any fallout from Iraq's disintegration during or after the U.S.-led conflict.

Since the end of the 1990-91 Gulf War, Turkey has routinely sent army units into the area in pursuit of militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ankara says it now needs to deploy troops in a 20-kilometer-wide buffer zone along the border, officially to man refugee camps. But the U.S. and its allies have objected, saying this task should be left to international relief organizations.

As during the Gulf War, Turkey is concerned that a drive for Iraqi Kurdish independence or autonomy might impact its own restive Kurdish provinces in the country's southeast. Officials in Ankara also fear PKK fighters might infiltrate Iraqi Kurdish refugees in an attempt to re-enter Turkey.

Despite Ankara's claim to the contrary, there is growing concern that Turkish troops might be sent into the area to prevent any of the two main armed factions that have been running Iraqi Kurdistan for the past decade from seizing the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, which are currently under Baghdad's control.

Powell yesterday said Ankara had assured both the U.S. and NATO that it had not yet dispatched any army units into northern Iraq. Yet, both Russia and Iraq's Kurdish groups claim that about 1,200 Turkish soldiers have already crossed the border.

Speaking to reporters after a cabinet meeting, Turkey's Justice Minister and government spokesman Cemil Cicek yesterday denied that Ankara has a hidden agenda in northern Iraq. At the same time, Cicek seemed to confirm rumors that Turkish troops had already entered northern Iraq.

"Given past experience during the first Gulf crisis, Turkey's presence and future presence in northern Iraq is dictated by humanitarian reasons and out of a concern to prevent terrorism. We have expressed our views on this issue to the United States and to other countries that have an interest in this issue, and they have been met with understanding. We will decide for ourselves on a military presence in Iraq in a way that will allow us to reach our objectives," Cicek said.

Turkey's private NTV television yesterday reported that Washington had pledged not to let Kurdish peshmergas (fighters) participate in any military operation to seize Mosul and Kirkuk, both former Ottoman cities with a substantial ethnic Turkic, or Turkoman, population.

Yet, there is concern in Ankara that Iraqi Kurds might eventually exert control over Iraq's oil wealth in any postwar scenario -- a development many in Turkey claim would foster Kurdish ambitions for autonomy.

Officials with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) -- one of the two factions that control northern Iraq -- on 19 March made it clear they would permit only temporary U.S. control of Mosul and Kirkuk.

U.S. planes and cruise missiles have been pounding Iraqi positions around those two cities for three days now and American special forces are being deployed further north, in Iraq's Kurdish-held provinces. Military analysts agree these preparations might lay the groundwork for a large-scale airlift operation to capture northern Iraq's oil facilities.

As U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated yesterday, his country is anxious not to let the situation in northern Iraq deteriorate. He said it was particularly important to prevent possible clashes between Turkish forces and Kurdish peshmergas. Therefore, Boucher said, Washington insists Turkish troops should under no circumstance be allowed into the area, even in coordination with coalition forces.

"We are in discussions [with the Turkish government] to try to make sure that the situation in northern Iraq is handled in such a way that the need doesn't arise for Turkish forces to be there either in a coordinated or an uncoordinated fashion, so that under any conditions they wouldn't feel the need to go there," Boucher said.

Another potential source of concern for the U.S. is the possible resumption of Kurdish internecine fighting. Relations between northern Iraq's main Kurdish factions -- Mas'ud Barzani's KDP and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- have been marred with bloody feuds in the past, with both groups periodically siding with Iraq, Iran, or Turkey in fighting against their rivals.

Turkey, the U.S., both Kurdish factions, and representatives of Iraq's Turkoman community have held several rounds of talks in recent weeks in Ankara to discuss the future of northern Iraq. Yet, despite reassuring statements issued by each participant, it seems that there is still a long way to go before an agreement is reached.

In comments broadcast yesterday on NTV, a KDP spokesman, Safin Dizai, warned that even if an agreement was reached between Ankara and Washington on the presence of Turkish troops in northern Iraq, his group would not necessarily abide by its terms.

The European Commission yesterday warned Turkey that any attempt to enter northern Iraq would further complicate its bid to join the European Union. Greece, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, also said nothing justified a Turkish military deployment in the area.

As for Germany and Belgium, they warned that any cross-border movement of Turkish troops would force NATO to reconsider the defensive assistance it had granted Ankara last month in anticipation of possible Iraqi retaliation.

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