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Turkey: Withholding Of Troops Complicates U.S. Mission In Iraq

  • Andrew Tully

The U.S. Defense Department hopes to reduce the number of U.S. forces in Iraq by next spring while increasing the number of indigenous and foreign troops to maintain a robust peacekeeping presence. Now Turkey, which had tentatively planned to contribute about 10,000 troops, announced on 7 November that it will not do so after all.

Washington, 10 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As violence continues almost daily against U.S. forces in Iraq, the news from Turkey was probably not what the Bush administration wanted to hear.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters in Ankara on 7 November that "we said from the beginning that we were not very eager" to send troops to Iraq. "We had said we would send troops if our contribution was to be useful. We saw that this was not the case, that's why we made this decision."

Shortly before the war, Turkey disappointed the Bush administration by deciding not to allow coalition forces to use its military bases to mount a northern front of the war in Iraq. But on 7 October, its parliament approved a measure permitting the deployment of Turkish troops in Iraq.

At the time, this was seen as a victory for Washington because Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country and thus its forces perhaps would be seen as sympathetic to the Iraqis. As an apparent inducement, the Bush administration also approved a loan arrangement totaling $8.5 billion for Turkey, whose economy has been struggling.

But the Iraqi Governing Council -- even though it was appointed by the United States -- soon responded that forces from no neighboring country would be welcome. It expressed particular concern about Turkey, which borders northeastern Iraq, because of a deep-seated Arab fear of renewed occupation by Turkey, and the possibility that Turkish forces might clash with the Kurds of northern Iraq.

Finally, on 4 November, Osman Faruk Logoglu, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, said his country would send troops into Iraq only if the Iraqi Governing Council issued a formal invitation. Such an invitation was not forthcoming.

On 6 November, there was a brief hope that the issue might be resolved when Jalal Talabani, the current leader of the Iraqi Governing Council, said he will be visiting Turkey in two weeks in an effort to improve relations.

But then came Gul's announcement on 7 November. Also in Ankara, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reminded the United States that his government had never promised that Turkish troops would definitely be deployed, only that parliament had no objection to a deployment.

In Washington, State Department Richard Boucher made it clear that the United States had hoped for a different decision. "Obviously we would have preferred if this had all worked out very nicely to everybody's satisfaction, but let's remember that the goal is stability in Iraq, and that there is recognition on all our parts -- the United States' side, Turkish, as well as the Iraqis -- that maybe this deployment at this time would not add to that goal in the way that we had hoped it would," Boucher said.

Boucher said Turkey's decision came in a telephone conversation on 6 November between Gul and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. According to Boucher, the two men discussed the sensitivity Iraqis feel about accepting troops from Turkey, which once dominated Iraq and much of the rest of the Middle East under the Ottoman Empire.

"The secretary [Powell] said that given the situation, given the sensitivities involved, maybe it's not the time," Boucher said. "And Foreign Minister Gul agreed and said that after reviewing the situation as they did that Turkey would reconsider its offer."

Turkey's decision might complicate the task of the U.S. Defense Department to stabilize Iraq. On 6 November, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced the Pentagon's plans to reduce U.S. forces from about 130,000 soldiers to about 100,000 by next spring.

But Rumsfeld said overall troop strength in Iraq would increase by then, as other countries contribute military units and Iraqis are trained to become part of the indigenous security force.

There was no immediate comment from the Pentagon, but at the State Department, Boucher addressed the issue of troop levels in Iraq.

"There is already an international deployment to Iraq, different forces in different places. We are still talking to other governments, some other potential contributors about possible deployments," Boucher said. "And then, as you know, there's a major effort under way to accelerate the deployment, accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces."

And Boucher indicated that there was some hope that the situation in Iraq may change to an extent where Turkish troops might become acceptable.

Still, the Bush administration must be extremely disappointed that Turkey will not be contributing troops, according to Marina Ottaway, an international affairs analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy research center in Washington.

Ottaway told RFE/RL that with the exception of Great Britain, foreign military support is largely symbolic. Turkey, on the other hand, is an experienced member of NATO and so its troops are used to working with larger international forces.

The United States, Ottaway said, also believed -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- that it would eventually be able to persuade Turkey to help, despite initial reluctance. But she stressed that Ankara's ultimate refusal does not reflect a U.S. diplomatic failure with Turkey as much as a U.S. failure to understand Iraq.

"The Bush administration did manage to prevail on Turkey. What, then, the U.S. discovered is that Iraqis did not want Turkish troops there," Ottaway said. "The Iraqi Governing Council made it quite clear that it did not want Turkish troops to be deployed."

And Ottaway said there was no option of carefully deploying Turks in areas not populated by Kurds, who have long fought with Turkey. She said Turkish troops would be welcome nowhere in Iraq because of Arab nationalism, which arose in the early 20th century to rid themselves of Turkish domination.

Ottaway said it is too early to determine whether the Governing Council is making a successful show of independence from its creator, the United States. She recalled that last month, senior officials of the council were publicly criticizing aspects of the U.S. civilian administration in Iraq, particularly its lavish spending.

"That sign of independence was quashed pretty quickly," Ottaway said. "This time the U.S. was not able to silence the Iraqis -- not because they cannot make them shut up if they want, because I think they can, but because essentially they realized that the Iraqis were right."
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