- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 24 (UPI) — The United States is trying to offer Turkey watertight assurances that would deprive Ankara of any justification for sending troops to Northern Iraq, the State Department said Monday.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that U.S. officials will "try to make sure that the situation in northern Iraq is handled in such a way that the need doesn't arise for Turkish forces to be there in either a coordinated or an uncoordinated fashion, so that under any conditions they wouldn't feel the need to go there."

Observers see this as a significant switch in the Bush administration's approach to its dispute with the Turkish government.

As recently as Friday, administration officials would not say their aim was to prevent Turkish forces from going into Northern Iraq altogether. The U.S. line then was that the United States opposed Turkish incursions not coordinated with U.S. forces in the area.

In an interview published Sunday in The Washington Post, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had agreed to allow Turkish troops into Northern Iraq. But U.S. officials have denied any such deal.

Talks on direct Turkish involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom continued over the weekend between the Turkish government and the U.S. envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad.

In the last month, Khalilzad has shuttled between Ankara and Kurdish-held Northern Iraq. It was Khalilzhad who in February negotiated the bilateral agreement with Ankara that would have allowed Turkish troops to enter Northern Iraq under U.S. command and allowed the United States to transit 63,000 U.S. troops to open a northern front in Iraq.

The deal was scotched on March 1 when the Turkish parliament voted down the proposal, despite the multi-billion dollar aid and credit commitment that went with it.

These current negotiations center on refugees and terrorism. Turkey has long expressed fears that the militant Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, would reconstitute itself during the confusion of the new war and infiltrate Turkish territory with Kurdish refugees.

But there was also Turkish concern over maintaining the territorial integrity of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. From Ankara's point of view that meant preventing the autonomous Kurdish minority in Northern Iraq from forming a separate independent state.

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