Turkey appears to soften stand on moving troops across border

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey will send its forces up to 12 miles into northern Iraq to stop any flood of refugees -- but only if a crisis situation develops, Turkey's foreign minister said Tuesday.

The apparent softening of Turkey's position follows intense U.S. and European Union pressure on Ankara not to send its forces unilaterally into northern Iraq. Washington fears Turkish troops could end up clashing with local Iraqi Kurdish fighters or become involved in friendly fire incidents with U.S. forces.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul also dismissed reports that ties between Washington and Turkey have deteriorated over Turkey's refusal to allow in 62,000 U.S. combat troops to open a northern front against Iraq and delays in opening up its airspace to U.S. aircraft.

"We will talk, we will cooperate," Gul said when asked about U.S.-Turkish relations. "We need each other."

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is in Ankara for talks with Turkish officials, called Gul's comments "a positive development." A senior U.S. official said the goal of Khalilzad's talks is to keep Turkish troops out of northern Iraq.

Gul said Turkey was discussing with Washington its plans to move into unpopulated areas of northern Iraq if there were a refugee crisis, but added that Turkey would decide on its own whether to move in.

"Definitely we will decide ourselves if the need is there, but we want to coordinate everything with our ally," Gul said.

Following the 1991 Gulf War, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds fled Saddam Hussein's forces for the Turkish border, creating a humanitarian crisis for Turkey.

"There were not only civilians," Gul said. "There were militants among them."

Fear of reviving war

Turkish officials have said Turkey would act to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, a move Turkey fears could inspire Turkish Kurdish rebels and revive a 15-year guerrilla war that claimed 37,000 lives.

Gul said Turkey was looking to create a zone up to 12 miles deep on the border if a refugee crisis develops.

"This time we don't want to allow refugees to come into Turkey," Gul said. "We want to keep all of the refugees there. This is very clear," he said.

"This is not a populated area and this area ... is for security reasons," Gul said. "If the need is there, this is our plan."

Gul would not say how many soldiers Turkey might deploy.

"It depends on the need," he said.

Gul dismissed U.S. concerns that Turkish soldiers could clash with Kurdish fighters if they moved into Iraq or that Turkey would move into the area for a long term.

"We are their relatives," he said of the Kurds. "Turkey is in the area for stabilization and peace, so it does not serve anyone to miscalculate."

"There is a suspicion ... that we have a hidden agenda there," he added.

"Unfortunately ... there is misinformation and prejudice against Turkey as if we are going to attack or invade."

"We don't have any intention to invade or get land," he added.

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