US-Turkey tensions ease amid signs of greater collaboration

Military chief says Turkey will send more troops into N. Iraq only if threat escalates - and in coordination with US.

Turkey's top military chief said yesterday that Turkey was actively preparing to send more troops into northern Iraq, but that it would do so only if the threat against Turkey escalates - and in coordination with the United States.

The comments by Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, the armed forces chief of general staff, comes amid signs of an easing of the tense standoff between Ankara and Washington, which has grown strident in its insistence that Turkey stay out of the war in Iraq. Ozkok's rare statements to the press come a day after President Bush made a surprise offer of $1 billion in economic grants to Turkey, which could be used to secure loan guarantees of up to $8 billion.

The US and Turkey, which have been on a collision course since Turkey delayed and then failed to win approval for a plan to base thousands of US troops here, now appear closer to collaborating - rather than competing - as the war edges into northern Iraq.

However, Turkey says it maintains its right to beef up its troop presence in northern Iraq, in particular if it sees increased threats to Turkish national security, or to Turkey's troops already posted there. The US has grown increasingly concerned that a large Turkish military presence in northern Iraq would lead to clashes with Iraqi Kurdish groups, some of whom say Turkey's troops would not be welcomed.

Ozkok yesterday set out to allay those fears, but also seemed to warn the US that it might someday find itself keen to have the Turkish military in northern Iraq to stabilize a situation it says could spiral out of control.

"Our actions would be coordinated with the US, and we will take other measures so that there will not be any misunderstandings," Ozkok said, speaking to journalists at a heavily guarded military base in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey's southeastern corner, nearest Iraq. "If one days things go out of control, I hope our friends will not have to ask us to do what they are opposing now."

Ozkok laid out the events that would lead Turkey to send more troops into Iraq. A massive flow of refugees toward Turkey, attacks on Turkish troops already stationed in Iraq, or fighting between various opposition factions in northern Iraq would be treated as a justification for sending in reinforcements, he said.

"We shall not fight unless we are attacked. We will only use our right of self-defense. We don't have any secrets aims," he said. "No one should have any doubt that this authority given to the armed forces would be utilized in the best way to protect our national security and maintain regional stability."

Ozkok's statements set out to clarify what he said were great "misunderstandings" about Turkey's intentions. Coming on the heels of the Bush administration's unveiling of plans to include aid to Turkey in its $75-billion war package, observers say the two countries are taking steps to back away from the brink of a diplomatic meltdown.

"Hopefully, this will set the stage for some kind of cooperation that wasn't there before," says Bulent Alireza, the director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

"Frankly, the Turks are very worried about the tactical cooperation that is about to materialize between the US and Kurds," says Mr. Alireza, speaking in a phone interview during a visit to Ankara. "The general [Ozkok] has lowered the level of tension between Turkey and the US, and had raised the possibility of cooperation."

That, many here say, could still involve the use of bases for stationing or giving support to ground troops that US-led coalition forces may still need in their drive to secure the north of Iraq, where various opposition groups and guerrilla organizations have flourished in the years since the no-fly zones made the region virtually autonomous.

Markets in Turkey, in a downhill slide after it became apparent that a $6-billion aid package from the US had been withdrawn, rallied yesterday on expectations that Washington would provide aid to debt-mired Turkey after all - and that the US and Turkey might yet iron out their differences.

Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said the aid Bush proposed was not contingent on a troop agreement. "The aid that will be provided by the US is not dependent on any conditions," Mr. Gul told reporters. "There is no new offer from the US about that," he said of the failed basing plans. But leading Turkish media outlets yesterday raised the likelihood of the AK [Justice and Development] Party government introducing another parliamentary motion to allow in US troops.

Members of parliament say that Turkey's plan to go into northern Iraq has been widely misunderstood, and are hoping Ozkok's statements will clear up concerns.

"All sides have to better read our intentions," says Egemen Bagis, a member of parliament and adviser to the prime minister. "Turkey is not there to bash Kurds. Turkey is not going there for oil. We are not going there to harm US interests. Our existence there will advance US interests."

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