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Turkey Negotiates With U.S. on Iraq Troops

Ankara sets conditions for deployment, sources say, including retaining command of its forces.

September 05, 2003|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ISTANBUL, Turkey — U.S. and Turkish officials began discussions Thursday on whether thousands of this nation's soldiers might be deployed to aid American troops in Iraq, with Turkey reportedly raising several conditions it wants met before joining the effort to pacify its southern neighbor.

The talks, which bring together senior military officials and diplomats in Ankara, the Turkish capital, follow Turkey's offer in late March to send an unspecified number of soldiers to help police Iraq. The gesture was aimed at patching up relations with the United States, which were soured when parliament voted on March 1 to deny U.S. troops permission to use Turkey as a launching pad for a second front against Iraq.

Turkey is demanding that any forces deployed in Iraq to help the U.S. mission be placed under Turkish command, Istanbul-based NTV reported Thursday night, citing unnamed Turkish sources. The U.S. military has sought to keep foreign troops in Iraq under its own command.

In advance of Thursday's talks, Turkish officials also had called on U.S. forces to move against Turkish Kurd guerrillas based in northern Iraq, which the Americans have indicated they are willing to do. Turkey has faced a long rebellion by those militants, but the U.S. found Iraq's Kurdish population to be a key ally in the war against Saddam Hussein's regime during the spring.

Early this year, U.S. officials criticized the influential Turkish military, saying it had failed to push for the use of Turkish territory by American forces during the war. But Washington has since toned down its remarks and has been eager to see troops from this predominantly Muslim country deployed in Iraq, whose population is also overwhelmingly Muslim.

As U.S. casualties have mounted in recent weeks, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed hesitation about aiding the American effort, declaring that "Turkish forces will not be permitted to sink in any quagmire in Iraq."

He has stressed that parliament, where his conservative Justice and Development Party enjoys an absolute majority, will need to authorize any deployment. Recent opinion polls indicate that a majority of Turks oppose sending their nation's forces.

Further signaling the government's hesitations, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has said that parliament is more likely to vote in favor of a troop bill if United Nations approval is secured for an international peacekeeping force in Iraq. But Turkish leaders have refrained so far from setting that as a condition for their troops' participation.

Thursday's meeting was largely spent with U.S. negotiators providing answers to a list of questions that Turkey raised early last month. The queries include the number of Turkish troops needed, where they would be deployed, what their command structure and responsibilities would be and how they would interface with the U.S. military.

Both sides declined to comment on details of the U.S. response, though Turkish media reports said Washington is seeking as many as 10,000 soldiers to be deployed in the predominantly Sunni Muslim region west of Baghdad.

A U.S. Embassy official, who sought anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, called Thursday's talks "very positive." He said they were "part of a process of consultation that will continue" but declined to specify when.

A senior Turkish official, who also requested anonymity, said negotiations probably would resume early next week, when another U.S. military delegation is expected in Ankara. That group will focus on measures to dislodge 5,000 Turkish Kurd guerrillas based in the rugged mountains separating Iraq from Iran.

U.S. officials Wednesday renewed pledges to drive the rebels from Iraqi territory. "The U.S. is committed to eliminate any terrorist haven in a free Iraq," said a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Ankara.

The guerrilla group, formerly known as the Kurdistan Workers Party and now called KADEK, waged a 15-year insurgency against Turkey from bases in northern Iraq's Kurdish-controlled enclave. The rebels called a unilateral truce in 1999 after the capture of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan. But KADEK's leaders threatened on Monday to resume the group's armed campaign unless Turkey signs a peace agreement with them by Dec. 1. The rebels also have vowed to strike back if attacked by U.S. forces.

Turkey has ruled out talking to the rebels, labeling them "terrorists."

Some Iraqi groups also passionately oppose the presence of Turkish troops in their country. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Qatar-based Al Jazeera television Thursday that troops from Iraq's neighbors would add to instability in his country.

Zebari, an ethnic Kurd, pointed to past Turkish military intervention in Kurdish-controlled areas for examples of problems that would probably emerge if large numbers of Turkish troops were deployed in Iraq.

"We hope such interventions will not take place, because they would further complicate matters," he said.

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