Turkish lawmakers are expected to decide soon on a motion approving the dispatch of thousands of soldiers to help the United States stabilize the situation in neighboring Iraq. Anxious to patch up ties with Washington, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday formally asked parliament to approve the troop deployment after receiving assurances that the U.S. will move against Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq.
Prague, 7 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After months of bargaining, Turkey's government yesterday said it would ask the legislature to authorize Ankara's contribution to U.S.-led stabilization efforts in neighboring Iraq.
Speaking to reporters after a five-hour-long cabinet meeting, government spokesman and Justice Minister Cemil Cicek yesterday said a motion would be sent to the Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament) later that day.
"The decision we have reached today was sent for approval to the cabinet meeting and has been signed. If there is no problem with the parliament's agenda, we will probably submit a motion that will enable parliament to decide whether to send troops to Iraq," he said.
Cicek said Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government expected the legislature to begin debating on the motion today and to reach a decision by tomorrow.
It is still unclear, however, if Turkey's 550 lawmakers will be able to make up their minds that soon. Cicek said the government is confident the motion will pass, but a majority of deputies in the AKP-dominated legislature and large sections of the Turkish public are believed to oppose any troop deployment for fear Turkish soldiers would become the target of Iraqi guerrilla groups.
The opposition People's Republican Party (CHP), which holds 175 seats in the legislature, has accused the government of "mortgaging" the country's foreign policy after the U.S. last month (23 September) offered Ankara an $8.5 billion loan package in exchange for cooperating in Iraq.
The cabinet of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in turn is anxious to improve ties with Washington after the diplomatic scuffle that followed the parliament's refusal last March to authorize the deployment of 60,000 U.S. soldiers in Turkey for the Iraq war.
In an apparent bid to allay lawmakers' concerns about the prospect of Turkish soldiers remaining in Iraq for an extended period, Cicek yesterday said the troops' mandate would have a definite deadline.
"Turkish soldiers will remain there for one year -- that is, the term of the motion we are sending to parliament has been set at a year. We will not remain there permanently. Hopefully, peace and serenity will be restored [in Iraq] as quickly as possible, thus allowing us to leave even earlier," Cicek said.
Cicek gave no details as to where Turkish troops could be deployed. He also did not specify how many soldiers would be dispatched. The Turkish Army's General Staff yesterday ordered two infantry brigades to prepare for possible deployment in Iraq. Ankara had earlier said it could contribute up to 12,000 troops.
Washington has been soliciting a number of nations to bolster its stabilization efforts in Iraq. A few Eastern European countries have already agreed to send limited military contingents, but these contributions are too small to provide any substantial relief to the estimated 130,000 U.S. and 12,000 British troops currently deployed in Iraq.
The U.S. State Department recently admitted it had given up hope of getting any contribution from India and Pakistan, which insist they will send troops only under a mandate from the United Nations Security Council.
Eager to win Ankara's support, Washington last week pledged to move against militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who fled to northern Iraq from southeastern Turkey after the capture of their leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.
Ankara insists the 5,000 or so PKK fighters who are holed up near the Iraq-Iran border still represent a threat to its security and wants Washington to take action against the Marxist group in return for its participation in U.S.-led efforts in Iraq.
The U.S. State Department's counterterrorism chief Cofer Black last week reportedly gave Ankara assurances that U.S. soldiers would move against the PKK -- which is also known as the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK).
What kind of actions Washington, which has officially designated the PKK as a terrorist organization, would be taking against Turkey's Kurdish rebels remains unclear. Western media have quoted Turkish and U.S. officials as saying military force was being considered as one possible option, but there has been no official word from President George W. Bush's administration.
Western military analysts believe that, with its troops already overstretched across Iraq, the U.S. is unlikely to start immediate action against Qandil Mountains-based PKK militants. They also say any hostile move against the Kurdish guerrillas might fuel further instability in Iraq and place coalition troops under greater risk.
Erdogan said on 5 October his country would be monitoring U.S. steps against the PKK and called upon Washington to be "fair and sincere" in its pledges to move against the group.
"We have seen positive signals from the Americans and we shall see in the days and weeks to come how our understanding is implemented on the ground," the Turkish leader said. Cicek yesterday justified the government's decision to seek parliamentary approval for the troop deployment by saying stability in Iraq was essential to Turkey's security and economic development.
"The Iraq issue is a concern to all countries," Cicek said. "But it is an even greater concern to us, because any development in Iraq -- whether positive or negative -- might affect Turkey first and more [than any other country]. Should there be peace, tranquility, and stability in Iraq, that would positively affect our policies. But should there be chaos or problems, that would negatively affect our policies, starting with our tourism industry."
Government officials in recent weeks have offered assurances that Turkish troops will be neither a police nor an occupation force and will be sent to Iraq only to contribute to its reconstruction.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul yesterday told Iraqi Kurds and members of the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council who oppose the presence of Turkish soldiers that they have nothing to fear from Ankara.
Barham Salih, a top leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two Kurdish factions that control northern Iraq, is in Ankara today to discuss Turkey's contribution to stabilization efforts in Iraq.
In comments made to Turkey's private NTV television channel yesterday, Salih warned that the PUK remains opposed to the presence of Turkish troops on Iraqi soil and said Ankara would make a much better contribution to the restoration of peace by investing in the country's depleted infrastructure.
Salih, however, added a conciliatory note. In a bid to allay Ankara's concerns over the PKK possibly using northern Iraq as a springboard for guerrilla actions in southeastern Turkey, he said the PUK would not let land under its control be used by "forces that represent a threat to neighboring countries."