Turkey weighs role in an Iraq war

Ankara will inform the US of the level of cooperation it is willing to offer if conflict breaks out.

Everyone here remembers the columns of refugees that poured into this hardscrabble corner of southeastern Turkey at the end of the Gulf War almost 12 years ago.

Now, they're worrying about the columns of trucks carrying tanks that rumbled through this border town a week ago, headed for Iraq. And they're wondering what the next US-led war against Baghdad will bring.

Washington, too, is wondering. Turkey has promised that it will tell the US by Friday what level of cooperation it intends to offer the US, which has asked to use Turkey as a launch pad for an attack on northern Iraq. The use of bases here and in south-central Turkey would allow the Pentagon to unleash a two-front war to squeeze Saddam Hussein's regime from north and south.

In short, everyone here is talking savas - war - and some are preparing for the worst.

Here in the southeast, a predominantly Kurdish region that was embroiled in separatist warfare with the Turkish military until about three years ago, many residents are sealing homes with plastic in case of a retaliatory chemical attack by Mr. Hussein. Others are focused on what analysts say is more-likely fallout: economic damage to a country that counts Baghdad as an important trading partner - and the political spillover of nascent Kurdish power in a postwar Iraq.

The latter prospect comes at a time when Turkey's domestic Kurdish issue seemed on a road to reconciliation - and is a key reason why Turkey has cause to hesitate over US war plans.

"We have seen hundreds of trucks and thousands of troops coming through here. Over the last 15 days, they've been coming, especially in the evening and nights, and then passing through to Iraq," says Ayup Tanis, the leader of DEHAP, a left-wing Kurdish political party. "We are against this war because many Arab and Kurdish people may die for something we think could be solved through diplomatic methods."

Washington's plans for "regime change" in Iraq, which look increasingly likely to entail an invasion early next year, are not being received in Turkey with the enthusiasm the Bush administration would like. With that in mind,one Pentagon scenario suggests US soldiers would be flown into southern Turkish bases and put on helicopters for northern Iraq, to prevent the need for an expanded number US troops based in Turkey. In contrast, major Turkish papers this week suggested the Pentagon was asking permission for the deployment of as many as 80,000 US soldiers close to the Iraqi border for five years.

Foremost among Turkey's concerns is that a war against Hussein could lead to an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, an area that has been enjoying a semi-autonomous existence since the enforcement of the no-fly zones after the 1991 Gulf War. That, in turn, might encourage Turkey's own Kurdish population - between 12 and 20 million of Turkey's 68 million citizens - to revive the separatist movements.

"Their perspective on Iraq is all about the Kurdish threat," a Western diplomat in Ankara says of Turkey. "They believe that whatever the Kurds in northern Iraq get, the Kurds in Turkey will agitate for."

Implicit in this concern is that Kurds will use war and any refugee crisis to sneak into Turkey some 5,000 guerrillas of the PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party) - considered terrorists by Turkey. "They worry that if there is a war, there will be huge refugee streams, and those terrorists will use that stream to work their way into Turkey," the diplomat adds.

The 1999 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, now serving a life sentence, led many Turkish Kurds to drop their militant struggle in favor of a push for more civil rights. That drive has been helped by Turkey's bid to join the European Union, which wants to see a better human rights record. Among other reforms, just three weeks ago Turkey lifted the state of emergency in this area, in place since the mid-1980s.

But the Turkish establishment still worries that war could cause Iraq to disintegrate. Turks fear that even a largely Kurdish state as part of an Iraqi federation - a preferred scenario - might rekindle Kurdish nationalism. Many Kurds are concerned that the war can only cause setbacks in their efforts to show they want to live as Kurdish citizens of Turkey.

"We do want to bring down Saddam. He's a murderer and a dictator and has killed thousands of Kurdish people," says Resul Sadak, DEHAP leader in the city of Sirnak. But, he adds, "If there is war, the Turkish authorities will put more pressure on us again. We don't want to separate from Turkey, we want to live here with our democratic rights and our Kurdish identity."

Turkey finds itself in a particularly difficult position. It values its alliance with the US. But it is still reeling from an economic crisis and can only see additional drains from a war: the disruption of its oil imports from Iraq and a rise in oil prices, and the potential costs of sheltering refugees or hosting US soldiers. "In the Gulf War, we were compensated for less than 10 percent of our losses," says Deniz Gokce, an economist in Istanbul. "Forty percent of Turkish exports were to that region," he says.

The country's new government, led by a party with Islamist roots, also has constituents to think about. A Muslim Turkey helping the US attack a Muslim country does not sit well with many Turks - and Muslim neighbors. Prime Minister Abdullah Gul was reported yesterday to be planning a peace mission to several countries - Jordan, Egypt, Syria, perhaps Iran. Turkey's conservative parliament speaker, Bulent Arinc, says the issue should be debated in a full session. "Many people are against Turkey helping the military operation. We will attract the hostility of Arab countries and increase the likelihood of terrorism against Turkey," says Ilter Turkmen, a former foreign minister. "An attack on Iraq will create more problems than it solves. But sometimes, you have to go along with the mistakes of your allies."

In Cizre, a commander declines to comment as foreign reporters ask about reports that Turkish troops and tanks moved through here last week toward Iraq. "Yes, we're nervous because it's not our problem. It's not our war. The problem is between two other countries."

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