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Turkey: Ankara Determined To Send Troops To Iraq, Despite Embassy Bombing

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

A car bomb exploded yesterday in front of the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad, leaving the suicide bomber dead and six wounded. The attack occurred one week after the Turkish legislature approved the deployment of troops to Iraq as part of U.S.-led stabilization efforts there. Ankara, however, claims that there is no linkage between the two events and insists it will proceed with plans to dispatch soldiers.

Prague, 15 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's attack in Baghdad, which wounded six, including three Turkish Embassy guards, was the third suicide bombing in the Iraqi capital since 9 October.

It occurred just one week after the Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament) approved a government plan to dispatch soldiers to Iraq as part of the U.S.-led stabilization efforts there.

There is still no time frame set for the deployment, and negotiations are under way between Ankara and Washington on the size of the Turkish contingent and where the troops will be based.

The Turkish vote raised a chorus of protests in Baghdad, including among members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). Some have said the presence of Turkish soldiers will only contribute to instability in the war-torn country, while others have warned Ankara of possible attacks by Iraqi guerrilla groups.

Muqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Iraqi Shi'a cleric who is pressing the U.S. to leave the country as soon as possible, yesterday said Turkish soldiers will be perceived by a majority of Iraqis as an occupation force, just as American troops are.

But Turkish government officials yesterday dismissed any possible links between the embassy bombing and Ankara's plans to deploy a military contingent.

Speaking at a joint press briefing with visiting South African Vice President Jacob Zuma, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he is not considering the attack a warning to his country.

"We reject the idea that this terrorist attack was carried out in connection with the permission Turkey received from the Turkish Grand National Assembly to send troops to Iraq. We believe this attack is just an attitude against positive developments that are taking place in Iraq. Terrorist actions cannot help secure peace. Terrorist actions cannot bring happiness or tranquility to any country," Erdogan said.

But not everyone shares this viewpoint.

In Baghdad, U.S. military spokesman Colonel Peter Mansoor said he believes the bombing was directly linked to Ankara's Iraq policy.

Even among the Turkish leadership, some disagree with the prime minister. Mehmet Dulger, who chairs the foreign affairs committee in the legislature, yesterday described the embassy bombing as a "provocation masterminded by those who do not want Turkish soldiers to be sent to Iraq."

Dulger, who is a member of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AK) also said Ankara will not be deterred by the attack and will proceed with deployment plans.

Talking to reporters in Baghdad, Turkish Ambassador Osman Paksut gave a similar assessment, saying his country will stick to its previous commitments. Asked by reporters whether the embassy had received any threats before the attack, Paksut said, "No, we did not receive any direct threat. However, we were expecting that Turkey would have to pay the price for having a considerable weight in the region and using it. [This time] we got off lightly. This attack will not alter Turkey's commitment to contribute to Iraq's stability, prosperity, unity, indivisibility, and development."

Erdogan's government has been widely criticized at home for lending support to the U.S. in Iraq.

Opinion surveys show a majority of Turks are against sending soldiers to Iraq. Republican People's Party leader Deniz Baykal, who heads the main opposition group in parliament, yesterday told Turkish state television the embassy bombing proves that concerns Turkish troops may come under attack are justified. He called for a revision of the parliamentary decision.

President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who does not support the dispatching of troops without an international mandate, yesterday declined to comment on the attack, saying he lacked information. But in brief comments made to reporters before boarding a plane for Malaysia, where he is scheduled to attend a summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the Turkish president said no decision has been made yet on sending troops.

"The Turkish Grand National Assembly gave the government permission to dispatch soldiers to Iraq. Our government will now carefully assess the [parliament's] decision. I believe the fact that permission to send soldiers was granted does not necessarily mean soldiers will be sent for sure," Sezer said.

Officials in both Ankara and Washington have said it may take some time before Turkish troops are dispatched to Iraq.

Turkey insists that the U.S. take concrete steps against hundreds of exiled Kurdish rebels who have been holed up in northern Iraq for the past four years and who it says represent a threat to Turkish security. However, Ankara has apparently failed to win assurances from Washington that U.S. troops will take military action against its banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

On 7 October, the U.S. "Defense News" weekly quoted American officials as saying the PKK is not a top priority of the George W. Bush administration.

Earlier this week, the deputy chief of Turkey's Army General Staff, Ilker Basbug, said Turkish troops will return fire should they come under attack while crossing Iraqi Kurdistan on their way to their final destination.

Analysts believe Washington, which already faces growing instability in Iraq's central and southern regions, is unlikely to let the situation deteriorate in regions immediately south of the Turkish-Iraqi border.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday said Ankara's possible contribution to stabilization efforts in Iraq is still being discussed.

"On the issue of Turkey's potential contributions, that's something that is still being worked and discussed," he said. "As we have always said, we think that there can be a positive role for Turkish troops to play in Iraq in helping stabilize the country and move forward. But I really don't have any [new] developments on that at this point."

The Bush administration has been trying to persuade its allies in Iraq and the region to accept Turkish troops.

But the IGC seems unwavering in its opposition to Ankara. Addressing a press conference at the OIC summit in Malaysia today, IGC members stated once again that they do not want troops from Turkey or any other of Iraq's neighbors to replace U.S. soldiers.