Relief for US troops stalls after Turkish troop imbroglio

Strong Iraqi opposition has sunk plans for a large Turkish force in central Iraq.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A plan to send upward of 10,000 Turkish troops to Iraq, a proposal the US heavily lobbied for in recent months, has effectively been shelved due to vehement opposition in Iraq.

For several months US military delegations came here seeking Turkey's approval to send its troops abroad - a nod which finally came earlier this month, only to be followed by a unanimous "no" vote by the interim Governing Council in Baghdad.

The US efforts point to a diplomacy disconnect, indicating miscalculations in how Iraqis would react to having troops from a neighbor they mistrust and casting doubt on the Bush administration's plans to get regional Muslim allies to share the Iraq burden.

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The quiet crumbling of the plan to send Turkish troops to central Iraq makes it less likely that the 101st Airborne will be able to go home after a one-year tour of duty as hoped. A public-affairs officer for the division says via e-mail that "it would be difficult to say when we will be coming home."

One solution might be to ask Turkey to send in a small group of specially trained officers, primarily those with Arabic skills, who can contribute to antiterrorism work.

"They don't really need more troops; they need different kinds of troops," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of Warwick in Britain and the author of an upcoming book on Iraq. "What's hampering the occupation is lack of intelligence."

Another possibility is using Turkish troops in a lower-profile location. They were originally going to be deployed in three regions, including Tikrit - the restive birthplace of Saddam Hussein - and Fallujah, a hotbed of anticoalition violence west of Baghdad. Instead, some military sources say, Turkish troops might at some point be deployed along the quieter Syrian border, or sent to serve as trainers of the new Iraqi national army.

"The Turkish troops are the worst possible troops they can send in," Dodge says in a telephone interview. "The Iraqis have a very strong, almost mythological sense of history," he adds, and a sense of victimization by the Turks under the Ottoman Empire is Iraqi folklore.

"There is very popular and widespread resistance to Turkish troops, and anyone could have told them that," he says. "The numbers at stake aren't that great, so it isn't going to make a great difference. If I were the US, I would quietly drop it, thank them, and go looking somewhere else."

Still, Pentagon planners had been hoping to shepherd the deployment of an international force to relieve units like the 101st Airborne. The morale of US troops on long deployments in Iraq, particularly those who are under constant threat, has become an issue of concern; at least 13 soldiers have committed suicide, Reuters reported. However, even 10,000 Turkish soldiers would not be enough to replace the 101st, which has over 16,000 troops in Iraq.

One goal in trying to broaden the military coalition is to build its legitimacy and diminish its image as predominantly American. But several military analysts argue that the US request for Turkish backup was not for appearance's sake. They say that the Turkish contingent would be large enough to be significant, and leaving Turkish troops out will hurt efforts to bring problematic areas under control.

"There is no doubt that the Turkish troops would relieve the pressure on the US Army," says Charles Heyman, the editor of Jane's World Armies in London. "The real problem is manpower. The US doesn't have the manpower for extended operations in Iraq. It has the ability to fight short, sharp campaigns, but it doesn't have the ability to fight longer campaigns in Iraq."

In the meantime, few Turks are complaining. At least 60 to 70 percent of Turks are still opposed to the idea of sending troops to Iraq, says Istanbul Bilgi University professor Soli Ozel.

A small but powerful part of the political fabric does see a deployment of troops in Iraq as in Turkey's interest: the Turkish military itself.

But now that it has succeeded in convincing the ruling AK Party of the importance in cooperating with the US, some here say, Washington is behaving as if it would rather not talk about it anymore.

"There is incredible silence over the issue, and there is frustration over that in Ankara, particularly among those who wanted to send the troops," says Mr. Ozel.

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