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Iraq: Turkish Troops In Northern Iraq? Yes, No, Perhaps

Turkish authorities are unanimous in stressing that the country has a right to send its troops to northern Iraq as a preventive act of self-defense. But they are reluctant to confirm media reports that the troops have already crossed the border. RFE/RL correspondent Abbas Djavadi reports from the Turkish capital, Ankara.

Ankara, 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish central command denied reports on 22 March that more than 1,000 Turkish troops had entered northern Iraq.

But Turkish officials appear determined to legitimize the presence of their troops in the region. In a nationwide televised address, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that Turkey and the United States have agreed to a "low-profile" deployment of Turkish troops to a narrow "buffer zone" along the Turkey-Iraq border.

A U.S. official has denied that such an agreement had been made. But Erdogan said the presence of Turkish troops in the 20-kilometer (12-mile) buffer zone is meant to help any refugees from the U.S.-led war in Iraq and will "prevent various provocations against our security" -- a likely reference to Kurdish militia groups and rebels:

"The military regulation that we will undertake beyond the Iraqi border in a limited zone is aimed at controlling a possible wave of refugees into Turkey, to prevent certain provocations against our security, and to protect our borders."

Erdogan did not comment on whether Turkish troops had already crossed the border to northern Iraq. But the media and other observers in the Turkish capital Ankara say the reports of the incursion are true, and that Washington has agreed to a "quiet" deployment in an effort to satisfy both Turks and Kurds.

On 22 March, Turkish TV showed tank and military vehicles carrying troops from the Turkish border town of Silopi into northern Iraq. That same day, journalists were blocked from entering Cukurca, a Turkish town in the triangle of Turkish, Iraqi, and Iranian borders that was said to be the troops' transfer point.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson -- after speaking with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul -- issued a statement on 22 March saying he had been assured that no Turkish forces had crossed into Iraq.

But regardless of whether Turkish troops have already entered Iraq, Turkish officials appear united in the belief that they have the right to be there, despite official U.S. opposition. Yesterday, Gul reiterated Ankara's justification of a possible incursion: "First, we don't want to see waves of refugees crossing into Turkey. Everybody knows this. We are talking about this to Europeans and Americans and everybody respects this. Second, we don't want this region to become a safe haven for any terrorist activities."

Turkey says it does not want to see a repeat of the consequences of the first Gulf War in 1991, when tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees fled northern Iraq for Turkey and the rebels from the anti-Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) used the power vacuum in northern Iraq to intensify operations inside Turkey.

Turkey, with its own large Kurdish minority, is concerned about the possible creation of an independent or even autonomous Kurdish administration in northern Iraq that might provoke nationalist tendencies among Turkey's Kurds.

It is being reported that in the 1990s, hundreds of Turkish troops were deployed in northern Iraq to combat PKK rebels who had fled Turkey into Iraq. Turkey was assisted in this effort by both of the main Kurdish groups of the anti-Hussein coalition, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

In their meeting in Ankara last 19 March, however, Iraq's opposition forces, including the Kurdish groups, failed to reach agreement on the deployment of a limited Turkish contingent in northern Iraq. Turkish officials and U.S. President George W. Bush's special envoy to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, also attended the meeting.

Commenting on the reports about the recent incursion, KDP spokesman Khoshyar Zabari described the long-term Turkish troops as "guests," but said a deployment of new Turkish troops would provoke "clashes."

The U.S. has made clear its opposition to a Turkish deployment, with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld saying it would be "notably unhelpful if [Turkish troops] went into the north in large numbers."

Yesterday, Bush said he had made it "very clear" to Turkey that its troops should not unilaterally enter northern Iraq. "We're making it very clear to the Turks that we expect them not to come in to northern Iraq. We're in constant touch with the Turkish military as well as Turkish politicians. They know our policy," Bush said. He added: "And they know we're working with the Kurds to make sure there's not an incident that would cause there to be an excuse to go in."

Turkish sources, meanwhile, say Khalilzad is expected in Ankara today to finalize the framework of the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq.