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Turkey: Ankara To Send Troops To Northern Iraq Only In Coordination With U.S.

Diyarbakir, Turkey; 26 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The chief of the Turkish Army says Ankara will send troops into northern Iraq but only if Turkish troops already there are unable to handle a possible influx of refugees or threats to stability.

General Hilmi Ozkok, the chief of staff of the Turkish armed forces, said today in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir that any Turkish deployment will be "coordinated" with the United States. "However, given that our strategic American partner is still fighting in the region, we would coordinate our actions with the United States, and all necessary steps would be taken to prevent misunderstandings," Ozkok said.

Turkey already has several thousand troops in northern Iraq who have been based there since 1997.

Reported plans by Turkey to send additional military forces into northern Iraq has caused a diplomatic rift between Washington and Ankara and created new tensions between Turkey and its European partners as well.

Washington and London have repeatedly said there is no need for Turkey to send additional military units into northern Iraq. But Ozkok noted today that the Turkish parliament has authorized such a deployment and that the Turkish military is ready to implement such a decision, if necessary. "As you know, there are some units of the Turkish military forces in northern Iraq [already]. Instability [in northern Iraq] due to possible attacks on our forces, a massive flow of refugees, as war may turn into an unexpected direction, [and] potential fighting between local military groups or their possible attacks on the civil population [are] our main security concerns," Ozkok said.

He said Turkish forces in northern Iraq have acted as a stabilizing force in the region. He said Turkey has no plans to invade Iraqi territory or control its oil fields, as some reports have claimed. "Should developments reach that point, we would not enter northern Iraq to wage war or to occupy the area. Our purpose would not be to set up a permanent buffer zone there," Ozkok said.

Observers say that in his statement today, Ozkok responded to most of the concerns raised by Washington and London, as well as by NATO and the European Union, without mentioning those countries or organizations by name. But he also expressed Turkey's disappointment over meeting such resistance and criticism from its allies. "Despite a transparent and open declaration of our policy, and despite knowing our past actions, doubtful, unfair, and painful statements made by some of our friends, allies, and organizations are deeply hurting the feelings of the Turkish people," Ozkok said.

Ozkok said he found it difficult to understand how some countries can speak of an Iraqi threat to their security while not accepting the fact that Turkey is also facing these same threats and has a right to take necessary action.

Hakan Goktepe is a political analyst for the Turkish daily "Yeni Safak." He summarized what he believes was the main message behind Ozkok's statement today. "The chief of the General Staff is briefly saying that Turkey and the Turkish Army have no secret plans against anybody in northern Iraq. When Turkey feels a threat to its security, it will take necessary actions to protect its national interests," Goktepe said.

Ozkok and other high-ranking members of the Turkish General Staff are inspecting the Turkish-Iraqi border today, assessing military and humanitarian preparations there.