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Turkey: Foreign Minister Begins Fence-Mending Visit To Washington

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul this week is in Washington for a fence-mending mission he hopes will put bilateral ties back on track following strains over the war in Iraq. But Gul's visit is shadowed by a debate over whether Ankara should contribute troops to help the United States consolidate its victory over the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Prague, 22 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul today flies to the United States in a bid to repair damaged bilateral ties caused by recent disputes over Iraq.

Gul, who is due to stay in Washington until the end of the week, will hold talks with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The first of these meetings is scheduled for 24 July.

Gul's visit comes in the wake of what Turkish Army Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok earlier this month described as an unprecedented "crisis of confidence" between the two NATO allies.

Ozkok's remarks were in reference to the 4 July detention of 11 Turkish officers and noncommissioned officers by U.S. troops in the northern Iraqi town of Suleymaniah.

Washington justified its heavy-handed treatment of Turkish soldiers by saying they were plotting against the Kurdish administration of the neighboring city of Kirkuk. But the U.S. has yet to provide any evidence to back its claims. Ankara in turn has denied any wrongdoing but has not explained what its soldiers were doing in Suleymaniah.

Both sides have expressed regret over the incident. But that has failed to dispel the distrust still simmering between the two capitals.

Relations between Ankara and Washington have soured since the lead-up to the war against Baghdad, when the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM) turned down a U.S. request to deploy tens of thousands of troops in Turkey's southeast as a staging ground for an northern invasion into Iraq.

Despite Ankara's subsequent offers to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq and ease the flow of humanitarian help to the war-torn country, some U.S. lawmakers have called for retaliation and a cut in financial assistance to Turkey.

Addressing journalists at Ankara's airport prior to his departure, Gul today said the time had come to patch up ties with Turkey's largest individual donor country.

"In many aspects, our relations [with the U.S.] are deeply rooted. Even if we've sometimes had difficulties over this long period of time, these relations are very old and continue within the framework of partnership," Gul said. "The talks we will have in the United States will focus on making Turkish-U.S. relations sounder and pursuing them in the future on a healthier ground."

The Turkish envoy said his Washington agenda would cover a large number of bilateral and international issues, including the possibility of Turkey contributing troops to U.S.-led stabilization forces in Iraq.

Addressing a meeting of his ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma (AK) party in the eastern city of Batman on 20 July, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly said Washington had requested Ankara's help in maintaining order in Iraq.

But remarks by U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker yesterday clearly indicate that Erdogan's remarks caught Washington unawares. Pressed by journalists to comment on the Turkish leader's claims, Reeker gave no indication that Washington had solicited Turkey's assistance.

"I saw all these reports, and indeed, the subject was raised during meetings [18 July] in Ankara between General [John] Abizaid, the commander in chief of U.S. Central Command as well as our European Commander, General James Jones, and their Turkish counterparts," Reeker said. "As you know, we've had discussions with a number of countries, including NATO members like Turkey, on contributing to stabilization operations in Iraq. It's a subject that we will continue to discuss and I would think it would certainly come up when the Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is in Washington this week."

But reports that Washington has requested Ankara's help in Iraq have been given wide press coverage in Turkey, where the Suleymaniah incident was seen as a national humiliation.

The Istanbul-based "Milliyet" daily said U.S. generals last week requested that Turkey send up to 12,000 troops to Iraq to be deployed in an area between Baghdad and the northern city of Tikrit.

In an apparent effort to cut short widespread media speculation, Gul today said Turkey's possible participation in the U.S. postwar effort is just being explored.

"The truth of the matter is this: U.S. commanders who visited Turkey in recent days unofficially conveyed to us their willingness to work together in Iraq. This is what we call 'unofficial consultations' and these 'unofficial consultations' have started at different levels," Gul said.

Confronted with daily attacks on the ground, the U.S. is desperately looking for help in maintaining order in Iraq. Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Georgia, and Ukraine have already agreed to contribute troops to the fledgling Iraq stabilization force, but many other countries have declined to participate in the U.S.-led postwar effort without a clear mandate from the United Nations.

The prospect of Ankara's participation in the U.S.-led force in Iraq without UN backing has already raised questions in Turkey.

It remains unclear whether the TBMM -- which will go on a two-month summer recess on 1 August -- will give its go-ahead to dispatch Turkish troops without international approval. Last March, a number of Turkish lawmakers cited the absence of a UN mandate for war on Iraq to deny U.S. troops access to national territory.

Mustafa Ozyurek, an opposition parliamentary leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP), today said sending troops to Iraq "while U.S. soldiers themselves want to leave that country" would be a "crazy" decision.

Ozyurek, whose party controls nearly one-third of the seats in the 550-member legislature, also made it clear the CHP would obstruct any government motion on dispatching troops in Iraq without a UN mandate.

"The Turkish Republic is an earnest state which feels an obligation to abide by the law. [The dispatching of Turkish soldiers in Iraq] would require a resolution that would have to be approved by parliament. I believe it stands no chances of passing through parliament and, therefore, our relations with the United States -- which have reached a breaking point -- would stop completely," Ozyurek says.

Even within Erdogan's AK party, which dominates parliament, there seems to be no consensus on whether to send troops to Iraq.

AK legislator Abdullah Caliskan today said he opposed the idea of Turkish soldiers "becoming the guards of the U.S. invasion of Iraq."

Another AK lawmaker, TBMM Foreign Affairs chairman Mehmet Dulger, likened the possible fate of Turkish soldiers in Iraq to that of American soldiers in Vietnam.

Most Turkish media believe that, should an agreement be reached with the U.S., Ankara would be authorized to deploy troops in northern Iraq.

Since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the region has been under the control of Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Masood Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which are Washington's main allies in Iraq.

Both groups have been at odds with the Marxist, Eastern Anatolian-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose militants fought a bloody separatist war with Ankara throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Turkey has maintained a cordial balance between the PUK and the KDP over the past 12 years while unofficially keeping hundreds of troops in northern Iraq in pursuit of PKK activists.

Yet, the prospect of Kurds achieving autonomy in a federal Iraq has rekindled Ankara's concerns that the PKK could resume military operations in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces. Many in Ankara -- especially among the influential military -- would welcome an agreement with Washington authorizing the deployment of Turkish troops north of Baghdad, possibly in return for a U.S. promise to crack down on PKK militants in northern Iraq.

But in comments made yesterday in Rome, Talabani warned the U.S. against any massive deployment of Turkish troops north of the former demarcation line between Hussein-controlled Iraq and the north of the country. The PUK leader clearly stated that Iraqi Kurds would see such a development as a direct threat to their dream of a federal state.

"But if the Turks want to serve in other parts of Iraq, God be with them," Turkey's private NTV television channel quoted Talabani as saying.

Washington, which suspects Ankara of planning to use northern Iraq's Turkic minority to maintain its influence in the region, apparently got Talabani's message.

Robert Pearson, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Ankara, yesterday told Turkish journalists that, provided both sides succeed in reaching an agreement, it is not yet clear where Turkish soldiers would be deployed. But he ruled out northern Iraq as an option.

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