TURKEY is increasingly asserting its own interests in its policy toward Iraq because of a growing concern over the October declaration of a federal state in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Pundits and politicians here have long criticized the government in Ankara for being too dependent on Western - particularly US - leadership in dealing with its notorious neighbor. But there are several signs that Turkey is now pursuing a more independent policy.
* Polls suggest the Turkish parliament may refuse to allow United States, British, and French planes to continue using the airbase at Incirlik, Turkey, to enforce the "no fly" zone over northern Iraq. Turkey must decide next month whether to allow Operation Provide Comfort, as the air support for Iraqi Kurds is called, to keep flying from Incirlik.
* The Turkish government unilaterally convened a meeting with Iran and Syria Nov. 14 to discuss the future of Iraq and the Kurdish federal state, without consulting or informing the US or other Western nations, according to US State Department officials interviewed in Washington. The officials said the US had to ask Ankara for more information on the meeting and that there was particular consternation in Washington over Iran's involvement.
* Turkey sent aircraft, helicopters, and 20,000 troops into Iraq this fall to fight militant Turkish Kurds operating from bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. Hints by field commanders that a Turkish-controlled buffer zone in northern Iraq might be necessary raised questions and suspicions in Kurdish and Western circles about Turkey's intentions, although the troops have now reportedly started to withdraw.
Asserting that Turkey now wants to follow a policy that will best serve its interests, Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin said in an interview that "it is natural for Turkey, as a regional power, to have a say in regional matters."
He says that Turkey's approach might sometimes be different from that of this country's Western allies because "Turkey sits in this region and is better located to judge where her interests lie and what the best solutions are."
The recent tripartite meeting in Ankara was the result of this new thinking. Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel said the regional handling of the issue would "remove the danger of interference and [the] imposition of solutions by foreign powers."
This change of attitude is hailed by many Turks - including a number of press commentators - who have been critical of what they consider a policy of dependence on Western leadership.
The meeting in Ankara was notable because Turkey took the lead in organizing it and because Iran and Syria, with which Turkey is not always on friendly terms, agreed to attend. But the three nations are unified in their opposition to any effort to partition Iraq, saying the country's territorial integrity should be preserved.
Turkey, in particular, is worried that an emerging Kurdish state will encourage its rebellious Kurdish minority. It has been engaged in a protracted, violent confrontation with the secessionist Kurdish Workers Party, and mounted the cross-border operation to limit the group's ability to maintain bases in northern Iraq.
THE Turkish government has tried to assure its Western allies that their interests will not be jeopardized by such regional initiatives, although a French diplomat here says Western and Turkish views on the future of Iraq increasingly differ. Mr. Demirel will try to clarify Ankara's position to British leaders when he visits London today; a meeting of US, British, French, and Turkish diplomats also is being planned.
For the West, and particularly for the US, the main topic of interest now is the future of the Provide Comfort force.
The Turkish parliament is to decide toward the end of December whether to extend the force's mandate. Surveys show that most parliamentarians are now against the extension.
It has become almost a conviction in most Turkish circles that the presence of Provide Comfort has gone beyond the protection of Kurdish lives and ended up promoting the creation of a semi-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Western diplomats here say they realize that Provide Comfort is now regarded by most Turks as a hostile rather than an allied force.
The Turkish government will have to decide how to handle this delicate issue even as popular sentiment against an extension grows. Foreign Minister Cetin said that "the matter is being studied and that the decision will be taken in due course."
"Even if there is a decision to extend the mandate, it must be properly negotiated first," he said. "The public and parliament must be reassured that this force does not operate against Turkey's interests."