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Turkish government faces U.S. pressure

Saturday, September 6, 2003

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- With the United States pressing Turkey to dispatch thousands of peacekeepers to Iraq, Turkey's populist government finds itself in a quandary -- caught between its closest ally and a public opposed to sending troops.

The dilemma illustrates the difficulties that many countries are facing in deciding whether to provide peacekeeping forces despite having reservations about the mission and the Iraq war.

Turkey is NATO's only Muslim member, and Washington is keen to see troops from Muslim countries in an Iraq peacekeeping mission.

U.S. officials have already spoken of using Turkish troops to patrol areas such as Saddam Hussein's home region of central Iraq, where there is distrust of the Americans.

But Turks overwhelmingly opposed the war and many question whether their soldiers should risk dying for a mission they largely don't support.

The government is keenly aware that pushing for a vote in parliament on sending troops could divide the ruling party and threaten the government's stability.

But Turkey cannot afford to rebuff Washington as the country recovers from its worst economic crisis in decades.

And refusing to deploy troops in Iraq could leave Turkey without a say in the reconstruction of its potentially rich southern neighbor.

"This is a nightmare," said Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University.

"They want to send troops, but they're afraid there's strong opposition in society."

Washington has been increasing the pressure.

Gen. James L. Jones, commander of U.S. forces in Europe, met Wednesday with the chief of staff of the Turkish army to discuss a possible troop deployment. A separate technical team from the U.S. military visited Thursday to discuss Turkish conditions for the deployment.

The government has indicated that a United Nations resolution authorizing a peacekeeping mission would make it easier for Turkey to send troops.

A firm pledge by the United States to crack down on Turkish Kurdish rebels operating in the remote mountains of northern Iraq would also help ease public opposition.

The rebels fought a 15-year war for autonomy that left some 37,000 people dead. Turkey is extremely concerned that instability in Iraq does not help re-ignite the war.

Turkey is also worried the Iraqi Kurds may be trying to carve out a separate homeland in northern Iraq that could inspire Turkish Kurds.

"The question isn't about boys dying and mothers crying," Bagci said. "The issue is, does Turkey want a role in the region? If you want to be part of the game, you have to take risks."

But opposition remains strong.

On Friday, a top lawmaker from the governing Justice and Development Party spoke out against the deployment.

"The U.S. wants our soldiers so that its own soldiers are not killed," Mehmet Dulger, the head of parliament's foreign affairs commission, told the Anatolia news agency. "How can I be expected to vote 'yes' under these conditions?"

An opinion poll indicated that 64.4 percent of Turks oppose sending Turkish troops to Iraq. Seventy-three percent of those surveyed believed the United States would fail in efforts to stabilize Iraq.

The poll, conducted by the Ankara-based Center for Social Research, was made available to The Associated Press on Friday. The poll of 1,834 adults was taken in 10 Turkish cities from Aug. 29 to Aug. 31. No margin of error was given.

"We shouldn't send troops. The war isn't going to end when we send our boys," said Hikmet Gundoga, a 41-year-old doorman from Istanbul. "America wants Turkish soldiers for its own protection. ... There's a 100 percent chance our soldiers are going to die."

That sentiment comes despite apparent endorsement for a deployment from Turkey's influential military.

"The legitimacy (of the U.S.-led invasion) can be debated, but that's in the past now," said Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, head of the military. "If the United States is unsuccessful and there is instability there, this will concern Turkey."

There also is a reluctance from inside Iraq for troops from Turkey.

Iraq's U.S.-backed Governing Council opposes the deployment of peacekeeping troops from any neighboring state, including Turkey.

"The general idea (of the council) is that it prefers no regional country neighboring Iraq to take part in the peacekeeping operations," said Iraq's interim foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, in an interview with the Arab television station Al-Jazeera on Tuesday.

Zebari, who is Kurdish, also said Turkey's past military engagements in northern Iraq against Kurdish rebels have "created many problems and complications."

Turkey's government is moving cautiously on the troops issue.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said a decision could come after Sept. 22, when the government considers the issue with the president and military officials at a meeting of the National Security Council.

"These are not issues that can be tackled in half an hour or an hour," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Friday.

Earlier this year, Gul backed a resolution that would have allowed Washington to open a northern front against Iraq. The bill failed in parliament, when dozens of lawmakers ignored party leaders and voted against it.

The action meant the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, which was supposed to invade Iraq from the north, was shipped to Kuwait and thus could not be part of the initial attack.

The parliament's rejection angered Washington and led to tension in the relationship.

"Any new rebuff will be more costly than before," Bagci said. "They're playing with time now in order to prepare Turkish public opinion."


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