- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

ANKARA, Turkey, March 22 (UPI) — A top Turkish official and the commander of U.S. forces for Iraq and the region said Saturday that their two countries are still negotiating the movement of Turkish troops into Northern Iraq.

Abdullah Gul, until two weeks ago the prime minister of Turkey, denied that Turkish troops had already entered Northern Iraq, and insisted the ongoing talks would not lead to the severance of relations between the two countries.

However, "we will enter there when and if the conditions require or ripen," he said in an exclusive interview with Turkish NTV channel. Gul, a member of the ruling AK Party, is both deputy prime minister and foreign minister under the new government formed after March 8 elections.

Gul said the Turkish plan in Northern Iraq was to set up a strip of troops along the border to keep out an influx of Kurdish refugees.

"As an independent state Turkey does whatever it pleases," Gul said, but added, "We don't want to be misunderstood and therefore we are discussing the issue with our ally."

The United States fears conflict may erupt between Turkish troops and Kurd forces in Northern Iraq. The Kurds there remember the bloody clashes between Turkey and separatist Turkish Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and are determined to protect the autonomy they have enjoyed in Northern Iraq for the last decade under protection of a U.S.- and British-enforced no-fly zone.

On Saturday, Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters in his first briefing since the war began early Thursday that the political discussion about Turkey's presence was "a little above my pay grade." He was speaking a news conference at his headquarters in Qatar.

"The Turkish formations we see in Northern Iraq are very light," and appear to be moving in and out of the country, he said. A CNN reporter at the border Friday night said she saw about 1,000 troops move across, while a highly informed Kurdish source monitoring the crossing told United Press International that no Turkish infiltration had been spotted early Saturday.

Asked why the United States repeatedly warns Turkey against moving into Iraq, Gul complained that many speculate that Turkey wants the oil rich fields of the area. He said that is not true: "We keep telling them (the United States) that trust is essential between allies," he said.

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." That comment, following another the same day from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell — "At the moment, we don't see a need for any Turkish incursions into Northern Iraq" — prompted Turkish authorities to temporarily hold up permission Friday for coalition forces to fly through Turkish air space on their way to Iraq.

Gul emphasized that an office would be set up at the southeastern border town of Silopi with representatives of Turkish, U.S. and Kurdish groups to ensure coordination among the sides. He said this was agreed at the Ankara talks held last week.

"There is no disagreement with the Kurds," he said.

But in Washington Saturday a Kurdish representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was "very concerned about unilateral Turkish actions." Qubad Talabani said that in addition to 1,500 Turkish troops who had crossed into northern Iraq late Friday, an additional 8,500 troops were arrayed on the Turkish side of the border.

The PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party are the two major Kurdish groups in Northern Iraq. Each control a part of the Kurdish enclave there and have their own leaders and militia forces, but have been trying to work out a power-sharing agreement for their region.

Observers say the dominant reason the Turkish resolve about Northern Iraq is 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.

Trouble between the U.S. and Turkey — a member of NATO and a close U.S. ally who fought alongside U.S. soldiers 50 years ago in the Korean War — began when Turkey refused to allow 62,000 U.S. troops to transit Turkey and move on Baghdad from the north. The Bush administration had offered some $6 billion in direct aid for Turkey's fragile economy and several billion dollars more in loan guarantees.

The United States is now reportedly planning to airlift in lighter airborne units. UPI was told Saturday that there was still a chance that an agreement for armored forces might be reached.

Meanwhile, the massive surge of refugees from Iraq that some observers predicted has not appeared along Turkey's border.

Metin Corabatir, the Turkish representative of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, said his information indicated no substantial movement towards the Turkish border in the last two days. Nevertheless, his office was making plans to shelter up to 136,000 refugees, he said.

He did note reports that on the other side of the border an unspecified number of people have already left the bombed towns of Mosul and Kirkuk, and were about 15 to 20 miles from the Turkish border.

In Ankara, a small group of University students held a protest Saturday in front of the U.S. embassy. Shouting slogans against the United States and calling the attack on Iraq "dirty war," the protesters left pens in front of the embassy garden. They dispersed peacefully after reading a statement asking Washington to stop the war.

(Anwar Iqbal in Washington contributed to this report.)

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