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Turkey Could Play Key Role on Attack of Iraq - 2002-09-26

Turkey is a key strategic and political ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and is expected to play a key role in any military action against Iraq. But the prospect of war against Iraq raises serious concerns in the Turkish government, which has repeatedly appealed to the United States to reconsider its plans.

During the previous Gulf War, Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member, opened its bases to Allied jets mounting bombing raids against Iraqi targets. It also closed a pipeline to loading terminals in southern Turkey through which some 70 percent of Iraqi oil was exported before the war. But in 1991 the goal was the liberation of Kuwait, not the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. That prospect has Turkey concerned.

Turkey fears that the fall of Saddam Hussein would create a power vacuum, and an opportunity for the Kurds of northern Iraq to move to establish an independent state. Turkey says an independent Kurdish state would re-ignite separatist sentiment among its own restive Kurdish population, particularly in eastern Turkey alongside the Iraqi Kurdish enclave. Turkish military leaders have even publicly threatened to intervene should the Iraqi Kurds make any moves towards breaking away from Iraq.

Concern about the Kurds is one point on which Turkey and Iraq agree. Leaders in Baghdad, like senior Ba'ath party official Abdurrazak Al-Hashimi, are pressing Turkey not to take part in any attack, saying the impact could be just as negative for Turkey as it would be for Iraq. "We hope that Turkey will not facilitate and will not participate in any kind of military action against Iraq not only for the interests of Iraq only but also for the main interests of Turkey," he says.

Kurdish officials say their goal is not the dismemberment of Iraq, but only what they call autonomy in a federal system. But Safeen Dizayee, the Ankara representative of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls the western part of the Kurdish safe haven, says they will settle for nothing less. "The Kurdish parliament in 1992 has voted unanimously for a federal formula to resolve the Kurdish problem in Iraq and this is the maximum demand that the Kurds have to have a settlement in present or future Iraq," he says.

Turkish officials are opposed to even that. They say any similar demand by Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran could destabilize the entire region. But political science professor Dogu Ergil at Ankara University says if Turkey granted its own ethnic Kurds full cultural rights it would have nothing to fear from the emergence of a Kurdish state on Iraqi territory. "One of the root causes of this fear from Kurds is that if living standards, economic, political, legal are improved in north Iraq then of course the Kurds of Turkey who feel that they are not better off might tend to yearn for those higher standards and that's a threat for the system in Turkey," says Mr. Ergil. "Knowing that this could be a reality, Turkey wants to obstruct any kind of political formation in north Iraq."

The Iraqi Kurds have controlled a chunk of territory the size of Switzerland ever since their failed uprising against Saddam Hussein at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Under allied air cover provided by U.S. and British air force jets based in southern Turkey, the Iraqi Kurds have set up their own parliament, police force and a fledgling army.

With some 50,000 fighters, analysts say the Iraqi Kurds are poised to play an active role in any effort to unseat Saddam Hussein. And in spite of its misgivings, analysts say Turkey is ready to help, too. But they say Turkey will do so only after receiving assurances that the United States will not allow any invasion of Iraq to result in anything resembling independence for the Kurds.