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Turkey: Washington Turns To Ankara For Help In Iraq

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

The United States yesterday said that the 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers its allies have so far agreed to send to Iraq are not enough to help its troops pacify the war-torn country. Desperate for military assistance, Washington is now requesting help from Turkey. But the prospect of Turkish soldiers risking their lives in Iraq without a proper international mandate has triggered a new controversy in Ankara.

Prague, 25 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is pressing more countries to help consolidate its victory over Saddam Hussein by contributing troops to its current efforts in Iraq.

Poland, Hungary, Romania, Georgia, and Ukraine, among others, have already agreed to dispatch soldiers to Iraq. But Washington says this is not enough and that other willing contributors are needed.

After soliciting India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh earlier this month, Washington is now appealing to Turkey to send soldiers to Iraq as part of the U.S.-led stabilization force.

Addressing reporters after talks in the U.S. capital with his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday said the request was made by U.S. Central Command chief General John Abizaid when he visited Ankara on 18 July.

This was the first time Washington admitted that it has officially turned to Turkey for help. Powell said the U.S. was expecting NATO ally Turkey to make a quick decision. "We would like a decision as soon as possible, but that is a judgment for the Turkish government to make. And I am pleased that [Minister Gul] indicated that they would be working on this in as fast a manner as possible," Powell said.

Powell declined to elaborate further on Turkey's possible contribution, saying logistical details would be discussed later between Gul and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Turkish newspapers have speculated the U.S. might eventually ask Ankara to send between 3,000 and 12,000 soldiers for possible deployment between the Iraqi capital Baghdad and the city of Tikrit to the north. These reports have not been confirmed.

In comments to "The Washington Post" on the eve of his talks with Powell, Gul said the Turkish government would agree to meet the U.S. demands only if it receives strong assurances that Ankara will play a prominent role in Iraq's reconstruction as well. "We want to be part of the big picture in Iraq," he said.

For Turkish political commentators, there is a clear sense of deja vu. "Once again it smells the motion," columnist Mehmet Ali Birand writes in Istanbul's "Milliyet" daily, referring to the political turmoil stirred earlier this year when the U.S. required permission to use Turkey as a staging ground for a northern offensive against Iraq.

Despite efforts by the Turkish government to secure U.S. financial compensations, Ankara lawmakers last March rejected a cabinet motion authorizing the deployment of up to 62,000 U.S. soldiers on national territory. The Turkish denial ushered in a period of simmering tension between the two capitals.

Relations soured further last month when U.S. troops detained a group of Turkish soldiers in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Al-Sulaymaniyah on suspicion of plotting against the Kurdish administration of neighboring Kirkuk. Turkey's influential military described the incident as the most serious "crisis of confidence" ever experienced by the two allies.

In an apparent bid to ease tensions, Powell yesterday welcomed Turkish efforts to help rebuild Iraq, notably Ankara's recent decision to facilitate the transit of humanitarian aid across the Turkish-Iraqi border.

"I expressed my appreciation to [Minister Gul] for the significant offers of assistance we have received from Turkey for reconstruction, humanitarian and other support efforts in Iraq to help the Iraqi people rebuild their society from the devastation caused by Saddam Hussein and to assist in bringing a better life to the people of Iraq," Powell said.

Whether Powell's praise will help overturn the Turkish public's reluctance to see its soldiers contributing to U.S. post-Saddam efforts is unclear. Many in Turkey oppose the deployment of troops in Iraq out of fear for the soldiers' lives. Others would like troops to remain strictly confined to northern Iraq to contain any upsurge of autonomist militantism in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish border area.

Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which controls roughly one-third of the seats in parliament, has made it clear that it will block any government motion asking for authorization to send troops to Iraq.

Alluding to the firestorm triggered by the government's previous motion to reject the presence of U.S. troops, CHP lawmaker Oguz Oyan today criticized the cabinet of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for "ignoring the lessons of the past."

Even lawmakers of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have voiced their opposition to Washington's request, saying no Turkish soldiers should be sent to Iraq without a proper mandate from the United Nations.

The controversy has spread out of parliament, with most political parties accusing the cabinet of yielding once again to U.S. pressure. Mete Gundogan, a deputy chairman of the Islamic Saadet (Felicity) party, yesterday went so far as to accuse Erdogan of turning Turkey into a U.S. puppet. "We are not being ruled by a single-party government, we are being ruled by a U.S.-Erdogan coalition," Turkish media quoted Gundogan as saying.