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Plan for Turkish Troops to Aid U.S. in Iraq Stalls

October 22, 2003|John Hendren and Esther schrader | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's intense effort to put a Muslim face on its occupation of Iraq by adding a large contingent of Turkish troops appears to be unraveling as a result of Iraqi opposition.

Senior administration officials were understood to have serious doubts about the plan after what sources described as a strong recommendation by Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer III that it be abandoned.

Two top U.S. policymakers equivocated when asked Tuesday about the prospects for Turkish troops to enter Iraq, a step approved by Turkey's parliament on Oct. 7. In Turkey, a top government official was quoted as saying he believed the deal had fallen through.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters that he didn't know whether troops from Turkey would go to Iraq, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, in an interview with Turkish television, acknowledged that the plan to send them had stalled. Neither was optimistic that agreement would be reached.

Declining the hard-won help would be a major disappointment for the United States because Turkey, in addition to promising a Muslim security force, was among the few nations willing to send troops in large numbers.

At the same time, last week's approval of a United Nations resolution that recognizes the legitimacy of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has raised hopes that other countries would be willing to send troops or money.

The importance of foreign help was underscored Tuesday when Rumsfeld told reporters that the Pentagon had no plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq within the next year. He said the current total of about 133,000 probably would remain constant, but most of the soldiers there now would be replaced by lighter, more mobile units by about April.

The Turkish contingent, estimated to number 10,000, was being counted on to help relieve the stretched U.S. force.

The opposition voiced by the Iraqi Governing Council stems largely from the Kurds, who make up one-third of Iraq's 25 million people and have a long history of antipathy for the Turkish forces along Iraq's northern border.

When asked late Monday whether he thought Turkish soldiers would go to Iraq, an unnamed senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official told Reuters news agency: "I don't think so."

Rumsfeld said Tuesday that Turkish officials had agreed that "under certain circumstances they would be willing to offer forces, subject to finding a method, an approach that was satisfactory to them, satisfactory to the Iraqis and satisfactory to the coalition.... Whether or not they will ultimately find a method of satisfying everybody, I don't know." He added, "I hope so, because obviously we would like additional forces to be available for several reasons."

However, the Foreign Ministry official said Turkey was awaiting a U.S. decision. "The ball is still with the United States. We have made every kind of preparation since the [parliamentary] draft was approved, but there is still no word from them."

Unless more countries are willing to contribute troops or the security situation in Iraq improves dramatically, there is little likelihood that the number of American troops could be drawn down in the near future.

There are just 24,000 foreign coalition troops in Iraq, most of them British.

After a visit by President Bush, Singapore said Tuesday that it would send ships and planes to Iraq, wire services reported. But details were not provided and it was not immediately clear whether ground troops would accompany them.

"The benefit of those [Turkish] troops was largely that they could take the place of the U.S. forces," said Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., public policy group. "Will those troops get in? ... My sense is not."

Bremer, who heads the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, is expected to continue discussions with the Governing Council and the Turks. One potential strategy is to try to build a consensus of groups other than Iraqi Kurds.

"We have to talk to the whole Governing Council, which represents all of Iraq, not simply the Kurdish parties, to see if there is a way forward," Armitage told Turkish television Monday.

Rumsfeld would not provide details on which troops would be mobilized to replace soldiers who return to the U.S. but said the mix would include National Guard and Reserve troops.

Defense Department Comptroller Dov Zakheim told Congress last week that the Pentagon planned to cut the U.S. force in Iraq to about 114,000 troops in the coming year. But Rumsfeld told reporters that a reduction of that magnitude was impossible to predict.

"It's important to emphasize that the rotations next year will not be driven by timelines for force reductions but rather by the security situation on the ground in Iraq," he said. "We're committed to staying as long as necessary with as many forces as necessary to successfully complete the mission.

"And the important thing is not the numbers of troops on the ground. The important thing is the capabilities and how well they match the security situation on the ground," Rumsfeld added. "Depending on how you did it, you could end up with more numbers and less capability -- or vice versa, lower numbers and more capability."

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