US prods Turkey on Iraq

Turkey took a step closer to committing troops to Iraq on Wednesday, after the top US NATO commander met senior Turkish military officials in Ankara.

Turkish protesters and population at large do not want their army in Iraq
Turkish protesters and population at large do not want their army in Iraq

The troops are being earmarked for the international force Washington is cobbling together to relieve its own increasingly hard-pressed soldiers.  Yet, despite the high level handshakes, doubts remain over the possible deployment.

With both the public and the parliament sceptical and Turkey’s president calling for a new UN resolution to give the deployment legitimacy, there is still much to be done before a Turkish contingent, tipped to be 10,000 men strong, is formally offered.

General James Jones, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, met on Wednesday with the Chief of the Turkish General Staff, General Hilmi Ozkok and Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul.


General Jones was at pains to explain he was in Ankara as a representative of NATO and not of the US Central Command, which has control of military activities in Iraq.

Despite this, the possibility of Turkey offering assistance was reinforced after the meeting of the two generals when it was announced a US military delegation would be arriving in Ankara on Thursday to discuss technical details of a Turkish deployment in Iraq.

The Turkish government, keen to mend fences with the US after the parliament refused to allow Washington to station troops within Turkey ahead of the Iraq war, favours committing troops, as does the General Staff. Both have publicly argued the deployment would protect Turkish interests in the region, politically and economically.

It is a message that Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, has been at pains to hammer home. “If we want to have a role in the physical and political reconstruction of Iraq tomorrow, we have to take these steps,” he said on Monday night on Turkish television. “If we don’t, our relations with our future neighbours could be negatively affected.”

“We, as Turkey and as General Staff, never want our army to get involved in something dirty. The nation should trust us at this point,” he added.

Public opposition

However, the move faces widespread public opposition, with a recent poll showing 68% of Turks against sending troops to Iraq. Of added concern to the government, the figure was only slightly lower among its own grass roots supporters.

There has been an increasing wave of anti-war and anti-US protests in Turkey in recent weeks, with the latest being on Monday, International Peace Day. More than 100 protesters were detained and a dozen police injured in demonstrations in Istanbul, Ankara and the western city of Izmir, where shots were fired to disperse the crowd.

“We, as Turkey and as General Staff, never want our army to get involved in something dirty”

Recep Erdogan,
Turkish prime minister

A focus of the protest has been the government’s willingness to bow to US demands to send troops, a claim denied by Deputy Prime Minister, Mehmet Sahin, on Wednesday.

“The US is not putting pressure on Turkey to deploy a force in Iraq,” he said after meeting with Washington’s Ambassador in Ankara, Eric Edelman.

Turkey will do what is required in contributing to re-establishing stability in Iraq.”

New resolution

Another not yet convinced is Turkey’s President, Ahmet Sezer, the former head of the country’s Constitutional Court, who wants any deployment of troops to be covered by a new UN resolution.

Also of concern to Ankara is the continuing presence of militants of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) – recently renamed KADEK – in Northern Iraq. The government has made any deployment of Turkish forces in Iraq conditional on the US stepping up efforts to eradicate the group, which has bases inside the Iraqi border with Turkey.

On Monday, the PKK/KADEK announced that it would end a four year long cease fire, which came into effect after the capture of its leader, Abd Allah Ocalan in 1999, after a 17 year insurrection.

However, the US was quick to respond to the end of the ceasefire. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said late on Tuesday that Washington would not allow any “terrorist threat” to Turkey to exist in Northern Iraq, raising the spectre of a possible US operation against the PKK/KADEK bases.

Yet, despite the government’s apparent willingness to commit troops, it has refused to recall parliament from its summer recess to debate a motion to send troops overseas, as required by the constitution. With the parliament not scheduled to resume sitting until October, the US may have a long wait for another ally in Iraq.

Source : Al Jazeera

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