U.S. Struggles to Keep Turkish Troops from Iraq
By Zerin Elci
ANKARA (Reuters - 25 March) - The United States, eager for stability in northern Iraq to marshal a possible second front against Baghdad, apparently failed on Tuesday to talk Turkey out of sending troops into the Kurdish-controlled area.
"We will continue our discussions in the coming days," U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said after a second day of talks with Turkish officials. "This is a difficult and complicated issue."
The United States and the European Union have told Turkey not to send forces into the area, fearing clashes between them and local Kurdish militia helping small numbers of U.S. troops secure the area as Iraqis watch from the mountains. Despite Turkey's failure to let U.S. ground forces use its territory as a launch pad for a thrust into northern Iraq, White House documents showed on Tuesday the Bush administration plans to give Ankara up to $8.5 billion in direct loans or guarantees.
Turkey told the European Commission its own forces massed at the border were there only for humanitarian purposes and it had no intention of taking military action in northern Iraq, a spokesman for the EU executive said.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said only Turkey could decide whether to send troops into Iraq "for humanitarian reasons or to prevent giving a chance to terrorism" -- a reference to Kurdish separatists operating there.
"But in a time of war, so as not to allow misunderstandings, nothing could be more natural than to coordinate with an allied country," he told TRT state television.
Diplomats said the dominant mood at the U.S.-Turkish talks was one of mutual incomprehension.
Officials have said the deployment could amount to tens of thousands of troops.
Washington had planned to use Turkish soil to launch an attack with 62,000 troops through north Iraq, forcing President Saddam Hussein's troops to fight on two fronts. But the NATO partner surprised U.S. military planners by refusing permission.
The U.S. only won overflight rights into the area, which broke with Baghdad after the 1991 Gulf War.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson told reporters that Turkey had briefed its Western allies on Monday on plans to create a buffer zone up to 20 km (13 miles) wide to contain refugees in northern Iraq if there were an exodus.
The United States and the EU argue this is the job of international organizations.
"Since there is no flood of refugees into the northern area of Iraq, the issue does not arise as to whether NATO agrees or not. It hasn't happened, therefore the intention has simply been noted," Robertson said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he had received fresh assurances in telephone conversations with Turkish leaders on Tuesday that they would not send additional troops into Iraq.
"We are going to put pressure on them if we see they don't behave according to what they promised us to do," he added.
A British defense source acknowledged on Tuesday that the lack of a northern front meant U.S. troops to the south of the Iraqi capital now faced tougher resistance.
The United States has lifted a small number of special forces and equipment into northern Iraq, but any future bid to assemble a northern front, albeit limited, could be undermined if there were confrontation between Turkish forces and Kurds.
Ankara's biggest fear is a move by Iraqi Kurds to seize a stake in northern oil fields as the financial foundation for a Kurdish state. Turkey says this would rekindle armed Kurdish rebellion in Turkish southeastern territories.
Washington insists a Kurdish state would not emerge.
SERIOUS ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES
Ankara has kept troops in northern Iraq for many years, guarding the border and pursuing Turkish Kurdish rebels who have withdrawn to the mountains there. Current estimates put the strength anywhere between 3,000 and 17,000.
Kurdish groups tacitly accept a limited presence but vow to resist any bigger deployments, possibly by force.
Villagers from a zone near the Iraqi border closed to journalists said they had seen more than 100 trucks, jeeps and armored cars assembled near the frontier. Armor was also visible from the Iraqi side of the border.
The head of Turkey's armed forces, General Hilmi Ozkok, was expected to visit the Turkish border area on Wednesday if heavy snow abated.
EU sources said on Tuesday the European Commission would propose doubling aid to Turkey, which wants to join the EU, to one billion euros ($1.07 billion) over the next three years.
The Turkish parliament's rejection of government proposals to allow U.S. troops to deploy for a northern front have brought serious consequences for Turkey's frail economy.
Washington withdrew a $30 billion aid package that would have helped Turkey cope with rising interest rates on its huge domestic debt and hold to a $16 billion IMF crisis program.
But White House documents showed President Bush's war budget included $1 billion in economic grants for Ankara, which could be used to secure up to $8.5 billion in loans or loan guarantees. (Additional reporting by Paul Taylor in Brussels)