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Iraq: Kurdish Opposition Unhappy Over Possible Turkish Role

The Iraqi opposition is warning of "serious consequences" if Turkey sends troops into northern Iraq. The warning comes as exiled opposition leaders meet with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in northern Iraq amid signs they are increasingly unhappy with the little role Washington is giving them in planning for a post-Hussein Iraq.

Prague 28 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Kurds are expressing strong concern that Washington is ready to let Ankara intervene in northern Iraq in exchange for offering U.S. troops a staging area in Turkey.

A top Iraqi Kurd official warned yesterday that there would be "serious consequences" if Turkey sends troops into northern Iraq as Ankara says it plans under a reported deal with Washington.

Speaking at a meeting in northern Iraq between the exiled Iraqi opposition and U.S. officials, Hoshyar Zebari said any Turkish troop movement into northern Iraq would be "a destabilizing factor" and "could lead to clashes."

Zebari is a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) -- one of the two main Iraqi Kurd factions. He said "this is the unanimous view" of all the exiled Iraqi opposition leaders.

He also said the exiled opposition leaders are still waiting to be informed of the details of the agreement between Washington and Ankara.

"We don't know the final outcome of the memorandum of understanding between the United States and Turkey. What we hope to see in that (the memorandum) is that it will not be at the cost of the poor Kurdish people."

The exiled Iraqi opposition meeting -- attended by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad -- is now in its third day. News reports say the meeting, taking place in a fortified compound near the city of Arbil, is likely to conclude tomorrow.

The warning to Turkey comes as Ankara says it has agreed with Washington on key Turkish demands for allowing U.S. troops to move against Baghdad from Turkish territory. The Turkish parliament is set to debate the agreement tomorrow ahead of a vote to allow the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops into eastern Turkey.

The U.S.-Turkish deal is reported to give Turkey billions of dollars in grants and loan guarantees to cushion the Turkish economy from the impact of any war. Ankara says its terms for a deal include sending at least 40,000 Turkish troops to form a border buffer zone inside northern Iraq to control refugee movements and to safeguard the ethnically Turkish Turkmen minority in the region.

At the same time, Turkish officials say they are determined to see that Iraqi Kurds do not gain too much autonomy in any post-Saddam Iraq, for fear that could encourage Turkey's own restive Kurd minority to seek the same. Ankara is particularly keen to ensure Iraqi Kurds do not gain control of northern Iraqi oil fields, which could give them considerable financial independence.

The mounting war-of-words between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds is threatening to further strain relations between the exiled Iraqi opposition and Washington. So far, U.S. officials at the meeting near Arbil have given no sign that they oppose Turkey's planned troop deployment. Instead, they have sought to reassure the Iraqi Kurds that the Turkish steps pose no threat.

Khalilzad issued a statement yesterday saying any Turkish troops movements would be fully coordinated with Washington. The statement said, "We are confident that any coalition operations undertaken will be fully coordinated, that there is no intention by Turkey to act outside of this framework in northern Iraq, and that there will be a full withdrawal by all coalition forces when the job is done."

But despite such reassurances, many of the exiled opposition leaders say that they are increasingly concerned that Washington is ignoring their interests as it makes its own plans for a possible war.

Zebari summed up those concerns in remarks to the press yesterday. "[U.S.] president [George W. Bush] himself repeatedly has said that this is a liberation campaign and not an occupation, at all. So, if we are allies, if we are partners definitely, we must have some input, our concerns must be factored into the deliberation and the discussion that is going on."

The opposition leaders have said they hope to be the nucleus of a post-Hussein government that would decide, among other things, how much autonomy to give Iraqi Kurds under a federal structure.

But Khalilzad told the exiled opposition leaders as the meeting began on 26 February that they are just one among many sets of players Washington wants to work with in Iraq, including political leaders who have never left the country.

"I also want to highlight that as we help build democracy in Iraq, it is critical that all Iraqis become involved from across the broad spectrum of all Iraqi communities working together for a new Iraq," Khalilzad said. "The decision of who ultimately governs Iraq is a decision for the Iraqi people."

Opposition leaders fear that Washington's other potential partners in Iraq will include elements of the current Iraqi army and bureaucracy, in which case they could even be forced to work with some of their arch enemies in Hussein's Ba'ath Party.

In his remarks on 26 February, Khalilzad said that U.S. efforts to work with Iraqis would start with forming advisory "task forces" formed of Iraqis in exile but whose membership would expand to people inside Baghdad-controlled Iraq as territory is liberated.

"As partners, free Iraqis and the coalition will plan together for a new and democratic Iraq. And while these task forces at present will be made up only of currently free Iraqis, they must be expanded to include liberated Iraqis as the country is freed."

Khalilzad said one group will be a "political task force" to provide Iraqi input about the transition period and "how best to move quickly to a democratic future." But he did not specify what role the task forces might have after any U.S. occupation of Iraq or whether they would be the foundation of a new Iraqi administration.

U.S. occupation plans leaked to the media foresee the establishment of a U.S. occupation government for some 18 months after the fall of Hussein. The occupation government would disarm Iraq, begin the reconstruction of the country, and initiate its transition to a more democratic system.

The leaked plans also envision an American military commander running the country in close cooperation with a civilian administration. Not much is yet known about how that administration would be appointed.