- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

ANKARA, Turkey, March 20 (UPI) — The Turkish parliament Thursday approved overflight rights for U.S. military aircraft and the dispatch of Turkish troops into northern Iraq. Under the decision, which passed 332-202 with one abstention, U.S. planes will be able to use Turkish airspace for six months.

Parliament narrowly rejected an earlier resolution to allow U.S. troops on Turkish soil on March 1, disrupting Washington's plans to advance into Iraq from the north. The earlier rejection also resulted in the Bush administration dropping an offer of billions of dollars in aid for Turkey. Nor does it appear the Americans could be enticed to propose the package again, at least for now.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters shortly after the vote, "Turkey, of course, is a NATO country and a NATO ally. Previously, there had been discussion of a package of aid for Turkey that was contingent on Turkey's acceptance of a total cooperation package. That did not develop, and that package is not on the table, and that package will not be on the table. So we appreciate Turkey's acting as they have."

The role of Turkish troops entering northern Iraq remained unclear even after the meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders in Ankara on Wednesday. U.S. officials have told Ankara that Turkish troops can only enter the region for humanitarian purposes.

Turkey now plans to send more troops into northern Iraq, to join the estimated 15,000 troops already there, but the timing is unclear and so is their command structure. Under the original proposed agreement, U.S. officers would accompany Turkish units but Ankara has insisted their troops remain under Turkish command.

The issue is touchy from a practical standpoint as well as a political one. In the latter, Turkey wants to balance having input about U.S. arming of Iraq's Kurdish forces with maintaining independence in its agenda — at the same time as the United States wants input regarding Turkey's actions without compromising its own agenda in securing Iraq. And, more practically, maximizing the efficiency of military action, as well as minimizing the risk of friendly-fire incidents, requires coordination between forces.

But Ankara fears the Kurds in northern Iraq — which have enjoyed virtual autonomy in the last decade under the protection of the U.S.- and British-enforced no-fly zone — will move to secure northern oil-rich cities such as Kirkuk and set up an independent state once the Baghdad regime falls. If so, the example may reignite aspirations for independence among Turkey's own 12 million Kurds, which represent about 20 percent of the country's population.

Iraqi Kurd leaders have insisted they have no wish to establish a state, and mistrust the Turks who have aggressively suppressed Kurdish rebellions in the past. The Kurds, a mountainous people whose clan-based culture stretches across the intersection of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, are the world's largest ethnic group to never have an independent state.

Asked when the troops would enter northern Iraq, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said: "There is a road map and everything would go in accordance with this map." The troops in northern Iraq would help prevent an influx of Kurdish refugees into Turkey.

Britain on Thursday also requested the use of Turkish airspace for its military flights. It wasn't immediately known if Turkey would grant this permission.

Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin didn't rule out another resolution to allow foreign troops to use Turkish bases.

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