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Turkey: Official Says Ankara Considering Options On Iraq, 'Open' To NATO Expansion

Turkey's ambassador to NATO, Ahmet Uzumcu, told RFE/RL in an interview on 13 September that his country has yet to consider whether it would participate in U.S.-led military action against Iraq. The ambassador said Turkey has a vested interest in Iraq's stability and territorial integrity, and has conveyed its concerns to the United States and other allies. Addressing NATO expansion, the ambassador said Turkey is keeping an "open mind" on possible new members and clearly supports the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.

Brussels, 16 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Contrary to recent press reports suggesting that Turkey will not participate in any military action against Iraq, Ahmet Uzumcu, the country's ambassador to NATO, says Turkey is still considering its options.

Uzumcu said the question of Turkey's involvement in an attack on Iraq is "hypothetical," as he says Ankara has not yet been asked by anyone to participate in a military strike. Therefore, he says, Turkey's government has yet to adopt an official position on the issue.

Uzumcu says Turkey's leaders welcomed this month's speech before the United Nations General Assembly by U.S. President George W. Bush. The speech, says the ambassador, demonstrated the willingness of the United States to "deal with the issue together with the United Nations Security Council" -- a stance, Uzumcu says, that reflects Turkey's own position: "We want that Iraq implements the [relevant] previous UN Security Council resolutions. We have made this position known on several occasions to the Iraqi authorities at the highest level, and we continue to do so."

But, Uzumcu says, Turkey does have certain concerns -- both political and economic -- regarding possible military intervention in Iraq.

In economic terms, Uzumcu says that in the more than 10 years since the Gulf War, international trade sanctions on Iraq have cost Turkey more than $30 billion in trade revenue.

But it is the political concerns that seem foremost in the ambassador's mind.

Regardless of what action is taken against Iraq, Turkey has told the United States and its potential allies that it wants Iraq's territorial integrity and political unity to remain intact.

Turkey, which is home to a large Kurdish minority, does not want the Kurds in Iraq to form their own country. Uzumcu addresses the issue in indirect terms: "As far as the territorial integrity [of Iraq is concerned], we think that in this destabilized region the borders should not change. And in order to increase stability, of course, a democratization process is required, but without any change in borders."

Uzumcu says, however, that Turkey supports greater autonomy for Iraq's different minorities: "We think that in Iraq [the] different communities should have a say in the future of the country, obviously -- but within a single state, and utmost care should be attached to that. I haven't actually seen any willingness expressed by the different ethnic communities in Iraq as far as their aspirations for an independent state [are concerned]."

The North Atlantic Council -- NATO's decision-making body -- has not officially discussed the question of attacking Iraq. NATO officials say it is only likely to be briefed on relevant UN Security Council debates, noting that NATO as a whole was not involved in the first Gulf War.

The most important question on the agenda of NATO at this point is the upcoming enlargement of the alliance. Turkey's ambassador says that while the number of new entrants to be extended invitations at November's Prague summit remains open, Turkey itself has clearly expressed its preference for the inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania.

"We made clear on several occasions that we would like [the] enlargement to include southeastern Europe -- this means Romania and Bulgaria. And publicly also we took an initiative together with Greece, holding some meetings at the foreign ministers' level several times within the alliance. We think that an enlargement toward southeastern Europe will provide the alliance [with] new strategic depth," he says.

Uzumcu says Turkey is keeping an open mind regarding the other candidates as well and supports an "open door" policy.

Briefly addressing NATO's blossoming relationship with Russia, the Turkish ambassador says his country views the NATO-Russia Council created in May as the proper forum for "all security issues in the Euro-Atlantic security area."

Finally, Uzumcu says he believes that Turkey's spat with Greece -- which has for some years now denied the EU's military arm access to vital NATO assets -- might be resolved in the near future: "We thought that we came close to agreement last December, but this was not achieved. In the coming weeks we are trying to make new attempts and hopefully we'll make some progress by the Prague summit."

Uzumcu says Turkey does not view the problem as a bilateral issue with Greece but rather as a wider question about the relationship between the European Union and NATO, and the right of non-EU NATO members like Turkey to participate in EU military actions.

Meanwhile, the EU's lack of access to NATO assets means some of the bloc's important ambitions are put on hold. A NATO official -- who wished to remain anonymous -- told RFE/RL that it was an "open secret" that the EU will not be able to assume control over the Amber Fox mission in Macedonia when the current NATO mandate expires on 26 October.