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U.S./Turkey: Powell Ends Fence-Mending Visit To Ankara

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Prague, 2 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Ankara today as part of efforts to allay Turkish concerns about possible negative developments generated by the ongoing war in neighboring Iraq.

Powell had successive meetings with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. He was expected to meet with Army Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok before leaving for Belgrade and Brussels.

On his way to Ankara, Powell made it clear that the main purpose of his 11th-hour visit was to dissuade NATO member Turkey from sending large numbers of troops into predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq. He also confirmed that the United States has specific demands with regard to the ongoing war against Baghdad and that he expects Turkey to meet them.

Speaking to reporters after talks with Gul today, Powell said Ankara had agreed to authorize the transit of tanker trucks bringing fuel and other supplies to U.S. armed forces stationed in northern Iraq. "We have solved all the outstanding issues with respect to providing supplies through Turkey to those units that are doing such a wonderful job in northern Iraq to keep the situation [there] stable," Powell said.

Gul said the assistance required by the United States was covered by an earlier bilateral memorandum of understanding and that there was no need for the Turkish government to request parliamentary approval.

Ankara's top diplomat also confirmed media reports that U.S. military aircraft had been authorized to make emergency landings at Turkish air bases, which would also accept U.S. soldiers injured in northern Iraq.

These comments may suggest that military operations south of the Turkish border are entering a new phase. An estimated 2,000 U.S. paratroopers and a large number of military vehicles have been airlifted to Iraqi Kurdistan since the beginning of the war.

In the meantime, U.S. special forces have been deployed near the Iranian border to help Kurdish fighters battle Ansar al-Islam, an armed Islamic group that Washington claims has ties with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Also, U.S. aircraft have been bombing troops loyal to Baghdad near Mosul and Kirkuk, southwest of the demarcation line that separates the effectively autonomous Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. Kurdish fighters have crossed the demarcation line to occupy positions abandoned by Iraqi soldiers, but no large-scale military operations have been reported so far.

Pressed by Washington, which was initially planning to open a northern front against Baghdad, the Turkish government on 24 February consented to the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers on national territory. But a cabinet attempt to get parliamentary approval was subsequently defeated.

However, Turkish lawmakers on 20 March granted the United States overflight rights for air strikes on Iraq. At the same time, they authorized the government to dispatch troops into northern Iraq to prevent any development that could rekindle separatism in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces.

Ankara's refusal to allow large numbers of U.S. troops to use its territory has caused much surprise and indignation in Washington.

Yesterday, a group of U.S. congressmen insisted that a request made by President George W. Bush to earmark $1 billion in aid to Turkey as part of the U.S. war effort be turned down. Some U.S. lawmakers openly blame Ankara's decision for hampering the U.S.-led coalition's war plans and making the offensive on Baghdad much more difficult.

Washington is also concerned by Ankara's insistence on sending troops into northern Iraq, fearing clashes between Turkish soldiers and Kurdish fighters. Ankara, in turn, is worried that Iraqi Kurds might take advantage of the U.S. military buildup in the area to seize the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul in a bid to sustain their de facto autonomy.

Turkey is also concerned at the prospect of armed militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) infiltrating refugees and reigniting guerrilla warfare in southeastern Anatolia.

On 31 March, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that, despite Turkey's concerns, Washington is adamant about not allowing Turkish troops to set foot in northern Iraq. "We don't think there should be a Turkish incursion in northern Iraq or any uncoordinated movement of forces. The approach we have taken is that the United States believes that through our own efforts and through our cooperation with Turkey and with the groups in northern Iraq, we can avoid the kind of instability, the kind of refugee flows, the kind of terrorism, the kind of dangers that Turkey is legitimately concerned about," Boucher said.

Ankara last month sent a 1,200-strong military contingent to northern Iraq. That's on top of the hundreds or thousands of troops Turkey is said to have deployed south of its border with Iraq in recent years to prevent PKK forays.

Officials in Ankara say Turkish soldiers will not occupy northern Iraq and will use their weapons only if they come under Kurdish attack.

Turkish leaders have assured that no more troops will be sent across the border without Washington's consent. But, at the same time, they have said that they reserve the right to take all necessary steps to protect Ankara's strategic interests.

Bush's envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has visited Ankara twice over the past 10 days in a bid to obtain a firmer commitment from Turkish leaders. But talks have apparently yielded no result.

Powell today reiterated his opposition to any Turkish cross-border movement. However, nothing in his comments suggested that any firm agreement had been reached on the issue. "We have been able to demonstrate to our Turkish friends that we are monitoring the situation [in northern Iraq] closely. We have it under control and, therefore, at the moment, there is no need for any movement of Turkish forces across the border," Powell said.

Powell is expected in Brussels tomorrow after a brief stopover in Belgrade. It is generally assumed in the Belgian capital that the main purpose of Powell's visit will be to secure European Union involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq after the war.

EU officials, in turn, want to hear from Powell about Washington's plans regarding Iraq's future administration. The Middle East peace process is also likely to be discussed. The EU is pressing Washington to endorse and publish a road map that envisages the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

The road map was finalized last year, but no details have been released so far.

(RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas contributed to this report.)