Turks, Eyeing Trade, Push To Normalize Ties With Iraq

AS it opens debate on the issue today, the Turkish Parliament appears likely to allow the multinational military force that has been protecting the Kurds in northern Iraq to continue operating from Turkey's Incirlik Air Base.

But Turkish officials say they want the United States, which leads the force, to let them "normalize relations" with Iraq, arguing that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is not losing power.

"We will from now on follow a two-track policy," said Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin in an interview. "We shall continue to cooperate with our Western allies on security in the area [northern Iraq], but at the same time resume diplomatic and economic ties with Baghdad."

The US, in addition to providing troops and planes involved in Operation Provide Comfort, as the Kurdish relief effort is called, has been the leading proponent of United Nations economic sanctions imposed on Iraq during the Gulf crisis. In the wake of signs that the Iraqis have been able to circumvent an international embargo of their country, US officials have publicly criticized Jordan, which also shares a border with Iraq, for inadequately enforcing the UN sanctions.

A US Embassy official in Ankara, the Turkish capital, said Wednesday that the US is aware that Turkey wants to rebuild its ties with Iraq. The Turks have not, however, formally approached the US seeking the opportunity to resume trade with Iraq as a condition for the extension of Provide Comfort, the spokesman said.

"There is no such condition, and there is no such bargaining," said a senior Turkish official. But the official added that Turkey has contacted other countries and the UN about coming to terms with Iraq on easing the embargo and on the export of Iraqi oil.

Iraq and the UN appeared to have agreed in principle Wednesday in Vienna on a long-discussed plan that would allow Iraq to sell $1.6 billion worth of oil to fund humanitarian supplies, but Iraq is insisting that the oil be shipped through one of its own ports. Turkey wants the oil shipped through the pipeline from Kirkuk, Iraq, to the Turkish port at Iskenderun, which earned Turkey $400 million a year before the Gulf crisis.

Turkish officials say there is no reason Turkey should wait indefinitely to renew ties with Iraq now that the West admits that Saddam's position is firm.

The international force - usually called by its code name, "Poised Hammer," in Turkey - is made up of air units from the US, Britain, and France that fly reconnaissance missions over northern Iraq. It has served as a deterrent against Saddam's regime since the Gulf war.

Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel's government, which took office late last year, had decided to extend the mandate of Provide Comfort until the end of this month, but handed over the responsibility for any further extension - or termination of the term - to Parliament.

Mr. Demirel and members of Turkey's National Security Council supported the extension this week and urged Parliament to allow the force to stay. Political observers predict a vote of approval, but caution that the debate could be heated.

The force's backers say it deters Saddam and argue that if Turkey asks the allies to leave, the Iraqi leader may renew his campaign against the Kurds in northern Iraq. Then the world would blame the Turks for the tragedy, the proponents warn.

Said Demirel: "We cannot say no to a deterrent force, at a time when the world is looking for such a force in Bosnia and the fear still continues that the Iraqi leadership is looking for an excuse to crush the Kurds.... We cannot allow a new Halabja disaster to reoccur," a reference to a 1988 massacre of Kurds by Iraqi troops.

A second argument: Turkey would lose the support of Western allies if it refused to support the force. Privately officials say Turkey cannot afford to eject Provide Comfort and alienate the US.

Provide Comfort is also seen to serve Turkey's security interests. The Turkish military asserts that the Kurdish zone protected by the force acts as a buffer that bars Saddam's expansionist designs, and that the allies stabilize an area that has been used by Kurdish rebels - guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) - to mount attacks against southeastern Turkey.

Conversely, several Turkish politicians and commentators have said the continued presence of Provide Comfort will lead to Kurdish separatism in northern Iraq. "While this force protected the Kurds, it also paved the way for their self-rule," said the daily newspaper Hurriyet.

Although the fear of a Kurdish state is being exploited by anti-Western leftists and pro-fundamentalists, many liberal Turks and even some Turkish diplomats share this concern. Although Kurdish leaders say their purpose is not to set up an independent state, Turks are suspicious about their long-term aspirations.

Critics also argue that it is easier for the PKK to operate in a region under allied protection than under Saddam's control. They maintain that the power vacuum in northern Iraq benefits the Kurdish rebels attacking Turkey.

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