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Iraq: Many Iraqis Oppose Deployment Of Turkish Troops

Many Iraqis oppose the deployment of Turkish troops in their country, saying it will make an already unstable situation even worse. Particularly strong resistance is coming from Iraq's Kurds, who have a history of hostile relations with the Turks.

Baghdad, 17 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqis who oppose the idea of Turkish troops in their country say past experience justifies their concerns. They point to the long-standing animosity between the Kurds and the Turks, and to the fact that Turks are Sunni Muslims while the majority of Iraqis are Shi'a. Ottoman rule in Iraq is considered a blight on the country's history. On 7 October, Turkey's parliament approved a plan to contribute troops to the U.S.-led stabilization efforts in Iraq. Turkey has said it could send up to 12,000 troops to Iraq, and the army's General Staff has already ordered two infantry brigades to prepare for possible deployment.

But Turkish troops are not likely to receive a warm welcome in Iraq. The Iraqi Governing Council reacted strongly to the parliamentary vote, saying it opposes troop deployments from any of its neighbors, Turkey included.

RFE/RL visited the headquarters of several Iraqi political organizations to ask members what they think about the deployment. Karim Murhzel Toma, a middle-aged man with a black beard, is a supporter of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a major Shi'a political party. He said he does not want Turkish troops in the country, because secular Sunni Turks are Muslim in name but not in spirit. Turks "are not Muslims and some of them do not respect the word of Islam," he said.

Toma is too young to remember Ottoman rule, but he says the stories his father and grandfather told about the Ottoman occupation have left an indelible impression. "They treated us in a savage way and we preferred the British occupation [after World War I]," he said. "Now we can agree to British and American occupation, but not to Turkish." He speaks in heated terms: "The Turks are still greedy and mean. The source of their greed is their hatred for us. Even if [a Turk] says 'hello' to you, smiles to you, in his soul he hates you."

Toma believes the Turks still seek to rule northern Iraq, especially the oil-rich region of Mosul. Indeed, it is Iraqi Kurds from the country's north who are most opposed to the deployment of Turkish troops. Shajan Mustafa al-Jaf, a young Kurdish historian, said the Ottomans cracked down on Kurds in the 19th century and continue to oppress Kurds in Turkey proper now. "I don't think that there is a Kurd who supports the entry of the Turkish troops in Iraq," he said. "Why? Because there is historic hatred [between the two nations.]"

Iraqi communists agree. A member of the Communist Party who identified himself only as Ali said the Turkish troops will cause "more problems than we have now." He said the Turks are coming not to ensure security but to square off against Kurdish armed groups. "We cannot forget the Kurds and there are some problems concerning the relationship between the Kurds and Turks," he said. "In a way it may be a cover for tracking PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] forces, and will cause problems for us. And to top it off, we have historic reasons" for not wanting the Turks in, he added. "That's why the Turkish forces will cause problems."

Some 5,000 fighters from the PKK are believed to be hiding with their families in the mountains that separate northern Iraq from Iran. The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan urged them to leave Turkey in 1999, following a 15-year military campaign against Ankara that claimed some 35,000 lives. Turkey insists that the PKK is a threat to its security and should be eliminated. Iraq's Turkoman national minority, which has cultural and linguistic ties with Turkey, seems to be the only group happy with the Turkish deployment. Kamal Nuri, a member of the Iraqi Turkoman Accord, a political grouping uniting Turkomans, says the Turkish troops are welcome. "I support the Turkish troops coming to Iraq with all my heart," Nuri said. "I support not only the Turkish Army, but also any army that comes to Iraq for peacekeeping, and that's what the Iraqi nation wants. That's why I support the Turkish troops." No doubt, the presence of the Turkish troops may help the Turkoman minority to become more influential in the country. Nuri admits as much and said he feels a degree of solidarity with the Turks.

Despite being approved by parliament, it remains unclear when the Turkish troop deployment will begin. Both Ankara and Washington say it might take time before any Turkish soldiers arrive in Iraq. In the meantime, Iraqi resistance to the deployment shows no signs of abating -- meaning incidents like the 14 October suicide bombing outside the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad might continue.