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WAR WITH IRAQ / REGIONAL REACTION

Turks and Kurds Deny That Troops Have Entered Iraq

Word comes a day after Turkey said it was sending in 1,000 commandos. But tensions, and the risk of a conflict, remain.

March 23, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

BACHIKA, Iraq — Looking back from the border post that welcomes visitors to Iraqi Kurdistan, the neat rows of white Turkish army tents and dark armored vehicles across the river seem more like a small outpost than a looming invasion.

But as more of them spring up along Turkey's side of Iraq's long, mountainous northern border, Iraqi Kurds are getting increasingly nervous.

Turkish and Kurdish officials denied Saturday that any new Turkish troops had entered Iraqi territory, a day after Ankara, Turkey's capital, said it was sending at least 1,000 commandos across the border into northeastern Iraq.

Friday's announcement angered U.S. officials, who have spent months trying to convince Iraq's Kurds that their Turkish neighbors aren't a threat, while assuring the Turkish government that a war to remove Saddam Hussein wouldn't strengthen Kurdish separatists on its doorstep.

For now, the friction between two centuries-old enemies is officially being shrugged off as a manageable diplomatic distraction that won't directly affect the U.S.-led war.

But as Turkish and Kurdish leaders play to their domestic audiences, they risk pushing each other into open conflict, the last thing U.S. military planners want as they prepare to open a northern front against the Iraqi army.

And Turkey's buildup, in defiance of the United States, reflected growing tension and distrust between the two longtime allies. U.S. commander Gen. Tommy Franks said Friday that he wasn't worried about small numbers of Turkish troops who have routinely moved in and out of a buffer zone in northern Iraq for several years.

But even as they insisted that more Turkish troops had not moved into Iraq, Kurdish leaders warned again that their guerrilla fighters would repel any such invasion, sparking a war within a war.

"No Turkish soldier has crossed the border. These are just rumors," Hoshyar Zebari, a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls northwestern Iraq, told reporters Saturday in the city of Irbil. "Our stance is very clear in this respect. We reject any Turkish military intervention in the region."

Because Turkey is not a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Iraq, "it cannot cross the border under any pretext, because they will face Kurdish forces," Zebari said.

He cautioned that the Turkish government's claim of an incursion, followed by a denial, "may be a leak to prepare the mind, or prepare the ground, for future, large-scale Turkish deployments into our areas."

As many as 5,000 Turkish troops already have been based in northern Iraq, with the consent of the Iraqi Kurd authorities, to pursue Turkish Kurd separatists hiding there.

Turkey for months had asserted its right to expand that force during an Iraq war, but Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's announcement Friday was the first that a large number of troops would go in.

Some of the existing Turkish troops in northern Iraq were repositioned Friday to strategic hilltops, Turkish military officials said.

During complex, failed negotiations for permission to send U.S. ground troops into Iraq from Turkey, Ankara sought guarantees that Iraqi Kurds wouldn't get control of rich northern oil fields. Turkey fears that would encourage the Kurds to turn their largely autonomous region into an independent state, but Kurdish leaders have repeatedly said they want a unified Iraq with a strong regional government in a federal system to protect minority rights.

Tens of thousands of Kurds have fled several northern Iraqi cities, headed as far from Turkey's border as they can get because they fear a war between Iraq's Kurdish guerrillas and Turkish forces.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, more than half a million Kurdish refugees fled into Turkey, but none has done so in the current conflict, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees confirmed.

Turkey has fought a 15-year war against its own Kurdish minority to crush a separatist movement, and it argues that it has the right to make sure the war in Iraq doesn't embolden Kurdish rebels in Turkey.

The only Iraqi Kurd anywhere near the Turkish army's riverside encampment Saturday afternoon was Musa Jamil, 60, who was sitting outside his small snack and cigarette shop, with a metal crutch leaning on his artificial leg. A few hundred Turkish soldiers set up camp just across the Tigris River about two weeks ago, he said, and then just sat in the broad valley that is the gateway to northwestern Iraq.

Jamil was more concerned with the frigid wind than he was with the Turkish soldiers at his back. Kurdish guards at the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing said they aren't worried by the Turkish camp, either, and found the sudden outside interest an amusing diversion on a cold, lonely frontier.

"It's just rumors that they've come over the border," one guard said. "They can't. We won't let them."

*

Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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