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Don't send Turkish troops to Iraq

By David L. Phillips / October 22, 2003



NEW YORK

Last week's bombing near the Turkish embassy in Baghdad underscored the virulent Iraqi opposition to the deployment of Turkish troops in Iraq. Though the Pentagon is under pressure to diversify peacekeeping forces, it must balance the need to rotate troops with the imperative of strengthening Iraqi governance.

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Overruling the Iraqi Governing Council, which unanimously rejects the presence of Turkish troops, would undermine the Iraqis on whom the US relies to steward restoration of Iraq's sovereignty.

As the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Iraq until 1917, Turkey is viewed with suspicion by Arabs and Kurds alike. In 1517, Arabs across the Middle East were angered when the Muslim Caliphate was moved from Cairo to Constantinople and Sultan Selim I proclaimed himself the Prophet's sole representative and leader of Sunni Islam. Iraq's Shiites have a special resentment resulting from their political and economic marginalization during Ottoman rule. Also, Iraqi Kurds have a deep distrust of Turkey. Massoud Barzazi, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq, accuses Ankara of trying to undermine democratic developments in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Iraqi Kurds have made the most of the US and British security umbrella to advance prosperity and self-rule since the Gulf War in 1991.

Ankara is worried about the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. It is also concerned that Turkish Kurds may be inspired by their Iraqi Kurdish brethren to demand greater rights in Turkey. Ankara has been involved in a violent struggle with the Turkish Kurds who make up the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the US identifies as a terrorist group. Turkish armed forces have routinely launched military operations against PKK hide-outs deep inside Iraqi Kurdistan.

Tensions between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds have worsened since the war. Ankara has been implicated in a series of events fomenting conflict between Iraqi Turkmens and Kurds. Last April, a Turkish Red Crescent convoy was stopped at a checkpoint, and weapons and explosives were found in bags identified as humanitarian supplies; Turkish Special Forces were accused by US military authorities of posing as aid workers and smuggling munitions to Iraqi Turkmen militias. In an even more serious incident on July 4, US troops detained 11 Turkish Special Forces for plotting to assassinate Kirkuk's Kurdish mayor.

Even before last Thursday, when the UN Security Council voted to authorize a US-led multinational force in Iraq, the Turkish parliament agreed to send 10,000 troops to Iraq. Discussions are already under way between the US and Turkey about how to deploy Turkish forces.

Turkey's eagerness represents an abrupt about-face from its approach before the war. It's no secret that Turks were against military action and that Turkish authorities did everything possible to impede Washington's war plans. In a huge setback for Pentagon planners, the Turkish parliament voted to bar the passage of US forces from Turkey into northern Iraq on March 1. As a result, the Army's 4th Infantry Division didn't make it to Iraq while major military operations were under way, nor did it arrive in time to help prevent postwar looting. Even after military operations had begun, Ankara delayed Pentagon plans to launch sorties from Turkey's Incirlik air force base. As a result, Turkey was the last NATO member to authorize US overflights (March 21).

The Joint Chiefs want to replace US forces with international peacekeepers. Recognizing there is a problem between Turks and Kurds, the Pentagon thinks it can avoid a confrontation by assigning Turkish peacekeepers to the Sunni triangle northwest of Baghdad. But because of the historical legacy, Turks are distrusted by all Iraqis - not just Kurds in the north.

Ankara says it wants to help the US stabilize Iraq and that, after a year, Turkish troops will be withdrawn. But Iraqis are skeptical, believing that Ankara is more interested in safeguarding its interest in Iraq than in helping secure the country. Members of the Iraqi Governing Council are concerned that Turkey, once in, may never leave.

Given the hostile Iraqi reaction, Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Ertayyip Erdogan is getting cold feet. To avoid a showdown between Turks and Iraqis, the US should find an elegant, face-saving way for Mr. Erdogan to withdraw his offer of Turkish troops. Iraqis are already chafing under occupation, and the presence of Turkish troops will stir further resentment. They believe that Turkish troops are more trouble than they're worth.

David L. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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