- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

ANKARA, Turkey, March 21 (UPI) — An official representing northern Iraq Kurds late Friday said 1,500 Turkish troops have crossed into Iraq and more are ready to do so.

Qubad Talabani, the deputy Washington representative for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said in addition to the 1,500 Turkish troops who had crossed into northern Iraq an additional 8,500 troops were arrayed on the Turkish side of the border.

"We are very concerned about unilateral Turkish actions," he said.

Earlier Turkey's Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul had said Friday that at least a small contingent of Turkish troops was poised to cross into Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq, in defiance of warnings from Washington.

A spokesman for the Turkish general staff in Ankara, said, "We are waiting, ready, at the (Turkish-Iraqi) border."

Briefing reporters at the Pentagon Friday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the Bush administration had told the Turkish government that "it would be notably unhelpful if (the Turkish army) went into the north in large numbers."

An official added that there was no indication the troops were crossing the border to engage in combat. Turkey has had several thousand troops in northern Iraq as a buffer against Iraqi Kurds and the additional troops would apparently reinforce the buffer zone.

Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Colin Powell had told the pro-Islamic government in Ankara there was "no need" to send troops into Northern Iraq.

U.S. diplomats said Powell had made the comment after all-night talks between U.S. and Turkish officials aimed at pressuring Ankara not to make the move, which had been authorized by the Turkish parliament Thursday.

Gul said Turkey needed a military presence in Northern Iraq to avoid a repetition of the 1991 Gulf War when half a million refugees swarmed across the border. "We don't want to re-live the problem of 1991. Northern Iraq was a vacuum, and this vacuum created the terrorist activity which we don't want to happen again."

This was a reference to the remnants of the separatist Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, that fled to Northern Iraq after years of bloody clashes with the Turkish army since the late 1980s.

But observers say the dominant reason is Turkish resolve to prevent the Kurds from taking advantage of the present conflict in Iraq to form a breakaway independent state. The Turks fear a Kurdish state on their doorstep could incite their own Kurdish minority to seek independence.

Turkish sources said a contingent of 1,500 troops was going to Northern Iraq. For the moment, analysts said, Ankara was establishing the principle.

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War Iraq's Kurdish minority established two autonomous enclaves in Northern Iraq. The United States and its allies declared a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein's Baghdad regime, which was regularly patrolled by U.S. and British planes.

But observers say the lightly armed Kurds regard a Turkish military incursion in force as much of a threat as Saddam. They are afraid that the Turkish presence will become an unofficial occupation.

On Thursday, the Turkish parliament passed legislation allowing U.S. military use of Turkish airspace in the war against Iraq. The same resolution authorized the Turkish army to deploy troops in Northern Iraq.

When the United States objected to the linkage between the overflight rights and troop deployment in Iraq, the Turkish government said it would delay the permission.

But following the Thursday night negotiations and a phone conversation Friday between Powell and Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyeb Erdogan, diplomatic sources said, U.S. combat planes were again allowed to fly over Turkish territory.

However, the issue of whether Turkish troops would go into Kurdish territory apparently remained unresolved. Powell said the overflights and the troop incursions were separate issues, and the question of whether Turkey could send the military to Northern Iraq would be discussed later.

"Our position is that these two items should be separable," Powell said Friday. "Let's deal with the overflight issue, and deal with the need for making sure that there is not a disturbance along the Turkey-Iraq border," he said.

The Turks have said any troops in Northern Iraq would stay out of the present fighting.

U.S. planes had been flying on regular missions over the no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq from the Turkish air base at Incirlik since 1991.

Ankara's desire to position troops of its own in Northern Iraq has bedeviled U.S. efforts to negotiate access for 60,000 U.S. troops through Turkey to establish a northern front in Iraq. An earlier agreement would have allowed Turkish troops into Northern Iraq but the Pentagon quickly reversed this quid pro quo.

Earlier this month, the Turkish parliament rejected legislation that would allow the United States the basing rights for ground troops and in the process lost their best opportunity for a multi-billion dollar aid package.

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(Eli Lake, UPI State Department Correspondent, and Anwar Iqbal in Washington contributed to this article.)

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