- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

A possible Turkish peacekeeping force in Iraq will lead the agenda as Turkey’s top diplomat meets senior U.S. officials today in a bid to repair badly frayed ties between the two long-standing strategic allies.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul meets with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice during the next two days. Mr. Gul, who is also deputy prime minister, is the highest-ranking Turkish official to visit Washington since Ankara infuriated American officials in March by denying access to U.S.-led forces for a northern front in the looming war on Iraq.

U.S.-Turkish ties were strained further after a still-murky July 4 incident in which American troops detained 11 Turkish soldiers in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah over accusations — denied by Turkey — that they were plotting against Iraqi Kurdish officials in the area.

Mr. Gul told Turkish reporters before leaving Ankara on Monday that he planned “very open, frank and clear meetings” with senior Bush administration officials.

“Our relations [with the United States] are deeply rooted,” Mr. Gul said. “Even if we’ve sometimes had difficulties over this long period of time, these relations are very old and continue within the framework of partnership.”

Turkey’s sputtering economy, its role in aiding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the war on terrorism also are expected to be featured in Mr. Gul’s talks.

Abdullah Akyuz, the Washington representative for the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association, said the visit is being watched closely back home.

“There are a lot of issues to deal with, but also a lot of pressure on both sides to make the visit a success,” he said. “A deal on military cooperation in Iraq would be a big step, but the U.S. side has to understand that sensitivities are very high in Turkish public opinion right now.”

Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. military commander in the Iraqi theater, visited Ankara last week to discuss a possible deployment of Turkish troops as part of the international peacekeeping force in neighboring Iraq.

Although no agreement was reached, Turkish media reports said the talks focused on the deployment of several thousand Turkish troops in the area near Baghdad and Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

No new Turkish troops would be sent to northern Iraq, where Turkey stations a force to confront Kurdish separatist groups that Ankara contends are inciting its own restive Kurdish minority.

U.S. officials are anxious to recruit the well-trained Turkish forces for the Iraq mission, to ease the strain on the coalition forces and to bring in representatives of a neighboring Muslim democracy.

But Turkey’s powerful military continues to express alarm about Kurdish gains in northern Iraq, and the July 4 detention further inflamed Turkish public opinion that was strongly opposed to the Iraq war.

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Mr. Gul will be seeking a clear say for Turkey in Iraq’s political and military evolution in exchange for sending peacekeeping troops.

“For him to return home with a strong hand, he must be able to show the opposition in his own party that he has assurances Turkey will have influence on political events in Iraq,” he said.

Without a stronger endorsement from the United Nations, the peacekeeping mission still could be a very tough sell politically in Turkey. Officials are warning of a replay of the prewar diplomacy, where the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to open its border for U.S. forces, only to suffer a humiliating rejection in parliament.

Mehmet Dulger, a member of Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party and chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs panel, warned that “sending Turkish soldiers [to Iraq] is like sending soldiers to Vietnam.”

Mr. Gul acknowledged to reporters that recent strains in the relationship have made the question of military cooperation more difficult.

“Turkey is a more democratic country when compared with the past,” he said. “Everybody should know this.”

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