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Turkey, Amid Strained U.S. Ties, Weighs Sending Troops to Iraq

Washington and Ankara want to repair relations. But for the Turks, deciding whether to send peacekeepers is not so simple.

August 03, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ANKARA, Turkey — A month has passed since the incident at Sulaymaniyah, but the wounds remain deep.

The incident, in which U.S. troops in northern Iraq captured 11 Turkish soldiers suspected of plotting to kill a Kurdish governor, pushed U.S.-Turkish relations to their lowest point in decades. Tensions were already inflamed over Turkey's opposition to the invasion of Iraq and what some Americans saw as Turkey's failure to cooperate sufficiently with the U.S. war effort.

The depth of anger and the extent of the relationship's deterioration were surprising for two NATO powers long considered among the closest allies in the region.

Now, with both sides saying they want to repair the damage, the relationship faces a new test. Desperate to build an international peacekeeping force in Iraq, the Bush administration has asked Turkey to provide troops for it. This, Washington believes, gives Ankara another chance to prove its friendship.

But for Turkey, it won't be quite that simple.

Many in the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear eager to comply with the U.S. request. Numbers are a matter of negotiation, but Turkey would send anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 soldiers to central Iraq.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, returning last week from a fence-mending visit to the United States, warned that it would be a mistake not to join the peacekeeping force. Not only would Washington be angry, he suggested, but Turkey would also find itself left out of shaping the new Iraq. "Turkey cannot say that it is not interested in Iraq," Gul said on television.

But anti-American sentiment is running quite high among some legislators and much of the public. A debate over sending troops rages on newspaper pages and in the halls of parliament, where a resolution will have to be approved to authorize any deployment to Iraq.

"We don't see the Americans as trustworthy anymore," said Emin Sirin, a parliament member from the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

His reluctance to send troops is compounded by what he sees as the U.S. government's thorough mishandling of postwar Iraq and its failure to understand the Iraqis and their needs. Turks should not be posted alongside American soldiers unless the Bush administration comes up with a realistic plan for Iraq, Sirin said.

Murat Mercan, another member of parliament and vice chairman of the AKP, said the government would work to convince the Turkish public that joining the peacekeeping force was in Turkey's interests. He said he expected the army would also lobby on behalf of the bill to authorize the deployment.

"We know the consequences of not sending troops," Mercan said. "This time we will be much more clever in selling the resolution to the Turkish people."

By prefacing his statement with "this time," Mercan was alluding to the government's rejection in March of legislation that would have allowed U.S. forces to open a second, northern front in the war to oust Saddam Hussein. The U.S. wanted to funnel American troops into Iraq from Turkish soil, but parliament balked -- to the shock and anger of the Bush administration.

U.S. officials directly and very publicly blamed the March vote on the Turkish military, in large part because the generals -- who wield considerable political power -- did not take a lead role in pushing the legislation. Some Turks are convinced that the July 4 incident at Sulaymaniyah was the U.S. military's way of punishing the Turkish military.

It is impossible to overstate the bitterness that the Sulaymaniyah dispute provoked. When the three Turkish officers and eight soldiers were arrested, American forces placed hoods over their heads -- for many Turks, the ultimate injury.

"If you had described that scenario to me before, I would have said ... it could only happen in a Hollywood movie," said Sedat Ergin, Ankara bureau chief for Turkey's largest newspaper, Hurriyet. "This will never be forgotten."

The U.S. accused the Turkish soldiers of plotting to kill a Kurdish governor in the oil-rich town of Kirkuk, a charge the Turks denied. Turkey has been operating in northern Iraq since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, to hunt down Turkish Kurd separatists and to arm and train a local ethnic Turkish militia as a countervailing force against Iraqi Kurds.

Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, Turkey's military chief of staff, at the time described the arrests as the "biggest crisis of confidence between Turkish and U.S. forces," an outrage that damaged the "national pride and honor" of his men.

In the view of some Turks, the estrangement between Turkish and American armies has a side benefit. Deprived, however temporarily, of its powerful backer, the Turkish military may be more inclined to accept new laws passed by Turkey's civilian leaders -- which will curtail the generals' role in politics. Despite Washington's stated support for democratic reform in Turkey, many citizens here believe that American governments have often lent unquestioning support to the armed forces.

"The U.S. role in Turkey did have a negative influence on the democratic process because it dealt with the Turkish military," said Husnu Ondul of the Turkish Human Rights Assn. "If the U.S. would remain neutral, it would be a positive contribution."

In Washington, officials have said they expected to receive Turkey's answer on providing troops as soon as possible. But Gul, the foreign minister, said here that it may take months to reach consensus and a decision.

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