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WAR WITH IRAQ

Turkey Sends Troops to Iraq

The move is made in defiance of Washington, which fears 'war within a war' could ignite.

March 22, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

ANKARA, Turkey — Ignoring appeals by the Bush administration to stay out of the way, Turkey sent at least 1,000 soldiers into northern Iraq on Friday, and the government said a much larger force was headed there to protect Turkey's security during the U.S.-led assault on Saddam Hussein.

The troop movement, reported by Turkish sources and Western diplomats, came as the government opened two air corridors for foreign military aircraft, enabling U.S. and British bombers to begin striking Iraq from the north.

Although Turkey's parliament had approved both the deployment and the overflights Thursday, Ankara delayed opening the airspace for about 27 hours as it unsuccessfully sought Washington's endorsement for the movement of Turkish troops into Iraq. When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell insisted that the two issues be dealt with separately, Turkey backed down and allowed the overflights.

The U.S. and its Kurdish allies in northern Iraq have warned Turkey that any intervention by its army could result in clashes with the Kurds and prompt other neighboring countries to occupy parts of Iraq, igniting a "war within a war."

Turkey borders the autonomous northern enclave of Iraq, run by two regional Kurdish governments since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Powell told reporters in Washington on Friday that U.S. and Turkish officials were discussing Turkey's security concerns. But he added, "We don't see a need for any Turkish incursions into northern Iraq."

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said later that Turkish soldiers would enter Iraq anyway. Rather than fight Hussein's army, he said, their mission would be to avoid a repeat of the Gulf War's disorderly aftermath, when nearly half a million Iraqi refugees and thousands of Turkish Kurd rebels from Iraq poured into Turkey.

Ankara has kept a few thousand soldiers in northern Iraq during the last 12 years to pursue the Turkish Kurd rebels, who retreated there in 1999 and observe a cease-fire. Friday's deployment, however, appeared to be part of a full-scale incursion.

A Turkish lawmaker said Friday that a Turkish general had told him that 30,000 soldiers with armored equipment were massed along the border and were starting to cross. A Western diplomat in Ankara confirmed the account, saying a small percentage of the 30,000 were now in Iraq.

The diplomat said the U.S. was unlikely to protest the move as long as the Turks don't go deep into Iraq. Turkey has said its troops will operate mainly in a 12 1/2-mile zone along the border, setting up refugee camps.

Turkish officials say they want a power-sharing role in Iraq for the country's small Turkmen minority, ethnic kin of the Turks.

More important, the Turks do not want Iraq's Kurds declaring independence or strengthening the de facto autonomy of their enclave, because either outcome could revive the Kurdish separatist campaign that claimed 35,000 lives in Turkey.

Some Iraqi Kurdish leaders have said their militias will resist any Turkish move across the border, but there was no report of confrontation Friday.

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Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

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