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Turkish Parliament Approves Sending Troops to Iraq - 2003-10-07

Turkey's parliament voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to authorize the government to send thousands of troops to Iraq. That would make Turkey the largest Muslim country to agree to serve alongside U.S.-led coalition forces in that country.

In a closed-door session, the 550-member parliament approved by a three to one margin a resolution giving the government the power to dispatch troops abroad for a year, without specifying details.

The move is aimed at mending ties with the United States soured by the parliament's refusal in March to allow U.S. troops to use Turkey as a launching pad for a second front against Saddam Hussein's forces. But it is also designed to assure Turkey a say in shaping the future of Iraq.

Turkish officials have denied reports that the U.S.-appointed Governing Council in Iraq approved a resolution opposing the deployment of Turkish troops. Rather, they say, some members, including a Kurdish representative on the council, expressed opposition.

Many Iraqis are worried that the Turks, who ruled their country as part of the Ottoman Empire, may have territorial designs, especially over Iraq's vast oilfields in the north. Turkey denies such claims, saying their troops will serve as peacekeepers and help the Iraqis rebuild their war shattered infrastructure. But it is the Iraqi Kurds who are the most vehemently opposed to the deployment of Turkish troops, for fear their presence would undermine the Kurds' 11-year-long experiment in self-rule.

Turkey's prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, is widely believed to have told members of his ruling Justice and Development Party that sending Turkish troops would prevent the Iraqi Kurds from setting up an independent state. That view is shared by Turkey's powerful Armed Forces who fear that a Kurdish homeland on Turkey's borders would re-ignite separatist passions among Turkey's own 14 million Kurds. Mr. Erdogan has long urged the Bush administration to take action against some five thousand Turkish Kurd rebels based in northern Iraq, in exchange for the deployment as many as 10,000 Turkish soldiers in Iraq. Because of the opposition from the Iraqi Kurds it is unlikely the Turkish soldiers would be sent to the Kurdish north. They would more likely be deployed in predominantly Sunni areas either west or north of Baghdad.

Recent polls show a majority of Turks are opposed to sending troops to Iraq, and opposition politicians have accused the government of what they call marketing Turkish soldiers' lives in exchange for an $8.5 billion loan that was approved by Washington last month.