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Iraq: U.S. Pressing Governing Council To Accept Turkish Troops

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The United States says it is seeking to persuade the Iraqi Governing Council to accept the deployment of Turkish troops in the country, despite strong opposition by members of the U.S.-appointed body. Some analysts say the case risks sparking a rupture between the U.S. and the council at a time when Washington hopes to show progress in rebuilding Iraqi political life.

Washington, 9 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Despite a chorus of protest from the Iraqi Governing Council, the United States says it will press the U.S.-appointed body to accept the deployment of Turkish troops in Iraq.

In briefings yesterday, the Bush administration brushed aside concerns that the disagreement with some members of the council could harm efforts by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to rebuild Iraq and restore the country's sovereignty. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking in Colorado after a meeting of NATO defense ministers, played down the resistance within the Iraqi council.

"[I do not believe] the Iraqi Governing Council has had a vote opposing Turkish troops in Iraq. There have been one or maybe two members of the Iraqi Governing Council who have opined that they might prefer that that not be the case. But to my knowledge, there has not been a full action of any type by the council, unless there is something that I don't know," Rumsfeld said.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stressed that L. Paul Bremer, Iraq's American civil administrator, met with the council yesterday and will continue to do so in a bid to resolve differences over the issue.

"We're talking to them," he said. "We're working with them. We know as well as you do that many of them have strong views, many of them have different views, on this subject. But until they as a body or as a group or in some overwhelming [or majority] fashion have expressed their views, I think you have to say it's a matter under discussion."

Boucher said the council had yet to issue a unified formal statement on the deployment of Turkish troops, although several council members, including Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, have come out against it.

"Let's face the facts. There's been no decision, no announcement, no statement, no resolution passed by the Governing Council. There have been individual statements by individual members of the Governing Council," Boucher said.

Boucher added that Washington is not ignoring the opposition but wants it to keep an open mind on the deployment, which he said would help bolster Iraqi security. After meeting with Bremer in Baghdad, council members spoke out yesterday against the deployment, which was agreed on by Ankara's parliament on 7 October.

Speaking yesterday by phone from Baghdad with RFE/RL's Iraqi Service, Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish council member, said "In general, we don't want any neighboring countries to bring troops to Iraq because, contrary to what the Americans believe, that cannot help solve security problems."

The Turkish parliament's decision authorized the deployment of troops for a maximum of one year but left the size, location, and time of the deployment to be worked out in negotiations with the United States.

Opposition to the deployment has been most vocal among Kurdish members of the 24-member council. But analysts say Shi'as and Sunnis are also far from eager to welcome the Turks.

Kurds are mindful of the long conflict between Ankara and their fellow Kurds in southeastern Turkey. But the Shi'as of southern Iraq may also have reservations about Sunni Turkish troops, partly due to centuries of imperial rule under the Ottoman Turks. Sunni Muslims from central and western Iraq are also wary of troops from any neighboring states, who could stir up strife among the country's different ethnic and religious groups.

Analysts warn that the disagreement, if left unresolved, could risk harming U.S. efforts in Iraq. David Phillips is a Middle East expert formerly with the State Department who now works with the independent Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

"I don't know how you split the difference on this," he says. "If the Governing Council doesn't want Turks to come in, regardless of where they are positioned geographically, and the coalition insists that they be deployed, how do you thread the needle? There's not a lot of room for compromise, and an issue like this runs the risk of pitting the Governing Council against the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is in nobody's interest."

Phillips says the council is in a tough spot because on the one hand, it doesn't want to dissuade the U.S. or any other international player from helping to rebuild Iraq.

But on the other hand, he says it's clear that the Iraqis have legitimate concerns about having neighboring troops on their soil.

As for Turkey, Phillips says there's a "sordid" history -- stretching from the Ottoman empire to last March, when 23 Turkish special forces were caught trying to smuggle weapons to an ethnic Turk Iraqi militant group.

And last July, coalition forces apprehended 11 Turkish special forces, accusing them of plotting to kill a leading Kurdish politician in northern Iraq.

For those reasons, as well as the difficulties already facing Washington in rebuilding Iraq, Phillips says the Bush administration should take the council's concerns very seriously.

"The whole policy of the Bush administration has been to set up the Governing Council as a partner of Iraqis with whom we can work to restore sovereignty and help run the country. If we aren't fully invested in the credibility and responsibility of the Governing Council, then it's clear that we don't have a plan for restoring Iraqi sovereignty. And then things are going to be much more difficult going forward," Phillips said.

Although the Governing Council has responsibility for overseeing a new constitution for Iraq, final say on policy rests with Bremer.

Because of that, the council's president, Iyad Allawi, said in a statement yesterday that despite the strong concerns of some members, the council will likely have to work out a compromise. But he gave no details how any compromise would work.

Washington, which is desperate to relieve some of the burden carried by its own overstretched troops, last month granted Ankara $8.5 billion in loans in return for military cooperation. It has asked Turkey for up to 10,000 troops. The deployment would be the first major contingent from a Muslim country and the largest non-U.S. force after those from Britain.