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Turkey: U.S. Hails Ankara's Decision To Send Troops To Iraq, But Admits Deployment May Take Time

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey's Parliament yesterday authorized the deployment of peacekeepers to Iraq. Washington, which is desperately looking for support for its stabilization efforts in the war-torn country, hailed the Turkish decision. Yet, Ankara says it now expects concrete steps from Washington before sending troops.

Prague, 8 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ending months of arduous behind-the-scenes negotiations, Turkey's legislature late yesterday authorized the cabinet of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to contribute troops to the U.S.-led stabilization efforts in neighboring Iraq.

The news came as a great relief to the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which is striving to preserve stability in the war-torn country.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher praised the Turkish decision.

"We welcome the approval in the Turkish Parliament of the Turkish government's initiative to send troops to the stability force in Iraq. The United States believes that Turkish troops would contribute to stability in Iraq, and we'll be consulting closely with the Turkish government over the details of the Turkish participation," Boucher said.

The Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament) approved 358-to-183 a government request to send troops to Iraq after a two-hour closed-door session. Two parliamentarians abstained and seven did not attend the session.

The resolution does not need President Ahmed Necdet Sezer's approval to come into force.

The Turkish government motion gives no details regarding the deployment, saying only that soldiers would remain in Iraq for one year.

Speaking to reporters on the eve of the vote, government spokesman and Justice Minister Cemil Cicek also said troops would not be deployed immediately.

"If we receive permission [to send troops], that does not mean that the troops will go to Iraq the next day. Talks [with the U.S.] are continuing in various fields. Once the government receives authorization, or permission, to dispatch troops, it will become easier to conduct negotiations," Cicek said.

Boucher yesterday said talks with Ankara will continue in the coming days to finalize the details of the deployment.

"The size of the force, the areas of deployment, how [Turkish troops] would get there and a lot of things like that remain to be worked out. Those kind of details have yet to be worked out. Some of that will be between the militaries. Some of that will be between the governments. There are aspects of this that we need to talk to the Turkish government about. There is a considerable amount of work to do before the deployment can take place. But how long that work takes, I don't have an estimate at this point," Boucher said.

Ankara has said it could send up to 12,000 troops, and the Army General Staff earlier this week ordered two infantry brigades to prepare for possible deployment. The opposition People's Republican Party (CHP), which holds 175 seats in the legislature, voted en masse against sending troops to Iraq.

Addressing fellow party members ahead of the vote, CHP leader Deniz Baykal cautioned the government against taking part in an operation that he said "has no international legitimacy, and which is wanted neither by the Turkish nor by the Iraqi people."

Hundreds of protesters today staged demonstrations in Istanbul to express concern at the upcoming troop deployment.

Recent opinion polls show that more than 60 percent of Turks oppose sending troops to Iraq, even though many believe Turkey could help stabilize the situation in that country. Critics fear Turkish soldiers may find themselves in a quagmire or becoming the target of Iraqi guerrilla groups.

In Istanbul today, the "Vatan" daily -- which is traditionally supportive of Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- says the prime minister is "taking a gamble in Iraq" and may face an uphill domestic battle in case things go wrong for Turkish troops.

More critical, the leftist "Cumhuriyet" newspaper notes that with yesterday's vote, "Turkey has joined the occupation of Iraq" and lashes out at Erdogan for "selling" Ankara's support to the Bush administration.

Last month, Washington granted the Turkish government $8.5 billion in loans, saying in return it was counting on its cooperation in Iraq.

In a short televised address following the vote, Erdogan denied Ankara has any secret agenda in Iraq and said troops will perform strictly humanitarian duties.

"In this period of great transformation that Iraq is going through, Turkey has arrived at the conclusion that -- on top of the political and economic support it has been extending so far -- it could not entirely perform its neighborly duties without a military contribution. Turkish troops will be deployed in Iraq, not as an occupation force, but as a friend and brother of the Iraqi people in a bid to ensure that this transition period comes to an end as soon as possible," Erdogan said.

Some Turkish newspapers welcomed the parliament's decision as a step in the right direction, saying it will give Turkey a chance to repair ties with Washington after the dispute that followed its refusal to let U.S. troops use its territory for the war on Saddam Hussein's regime. Other analysts argue that sending troops will allow Turkey to have a say in Iraq and preserve its national interests.

In his televised address yesterday, Erdogan made no secret that security south of the Turkey-Iraq border is a primary concern of his government. He notably stressed the need to fight the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist group that waged a 15-year war for autonomy in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish provinces.

An estimated 5,000 members of the PKK -- which is now known as the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK) -- have been based in the Qandil Mountains, along the northern section of the Iraq-Iran border, since the capture of their leader Abdullah Ocalan four years ago.

Ankara insists armed Kurdish militants holed up in northern Iraq represent a threat to its security and has been pressing Washington to move against them in return for its troop commitment.

The U.S., which includes the PKK-KADEK on its list of terrorist organizations, has promised Ankara that it will take action against the group.

Erdogan warned on 5 October that Ankara will be monitoring U.S. steps against the PKK and urged Washington to be "fair and sincere" about its pledges to move against the Kurdish rebels.

In a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell after yesterday's vote, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul reportedly said Ankara expects "concrete steps" from Washington before sending troops to Iraq.

However, it remains unclear what possible action Washington might take against Kurdish rebels.

Turkish and U.S. officials have in recent weeks said military force is being considered as an option, but there has been no confirmation from the Bush administration.

Military experts believe that, with its troops already overstretched across Iraq, the U.S. is unlikely to start immediate action against PKK-KADEK fighters. They also say any hostile move against the Kurdish guerrillas might add fuel to Iraq's instability and stir troubles in neighboring areas.

In a televised debate broadcast on the pro-Kurdish "Medya TV," PKK-KADEK presidential council member Murat Karayilan warned yesterday that any military action against the group would mean "war with Turkey."

The PKK last month called off a five-year unilateral cease-fire and threatened to resume hostilities unless Turkey agrees to enter into peace negotiations by the end of the year.

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