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US, Turkey Appear Close to Deal on US Troop Deployment - 2003-02-21

Turkey and the United States appeared closer on Friday to reaching agreement on a deal to allow the deployment of tens-of-thousands of U.S. forces on Turkish soil.

The Turkish prime minister, Abdullah Gul, told reporters in Ankara that talks between the two sides were continuing, as he put it, "in a positive way," and that a result would be reached "in the coming days." But he declined to elaborate.

His views were echoed by the U.S. ambassador to Ankara, Robert Pearson, who said progress had been achieved on a number of issues.

According to the private NTV news channel, hopes of a deal emerged after Washington reportedly agreed to Turkish demands to allow thousands of Turkish troops to enter Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq in the event of a war.

The troops, which would be under Turkish command, a key Turkish condition, would be deployed in a broad area that is administered by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of two Kurdish factions that have been running the Western-protected Kurdish enclave since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Turkish military presence is aimed at discouraging the Iraqi Kurds from any moves toward independence.

Under the deal, some Turkish troops will also reportedly be allowed to position themselves close to oil fields in Iraq's main oil producing province of Kirkuk, to prevent the Iraqi Kurds from gaining control of those fields.

The Iraqi Kurds, however, continue to voice fierce opposition to the presence of Turkish troops. The Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls the western slice of the enclave bordering Turkey, is particularly concerned about the possibility of Turkish intervention, saying it would destabilize the region and invite intervention from neighboring Iran as well.

Turkish officials, meanwhile, say differences remain between Washington and Ankara over the size of an economic aid package Turkey is demanding to cushion the effects of a war on its tottering economy.

The United States has offered $26 billion in grants, loans and loan guarantees, but diplomats say Turkey has asked for a package totaling $32 billion.

As negotiations have continued between the two countries this week, each side has insisted that it would not alter its offer, and conceded that talks could break down altogether between the two longtime military allies.

Turkey, the NATO military alliance's only predominantly Muslim member, is set to play a key role in any conflict against Iraq, just as it did in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

The Pentagon has been pressing hard for a swift decision. If it comes, U.S. troops are expected to transit through Turkish territory to open a second front against Iraqi government forces in northern Iraq.

Meanwhile, thousands of American troops and tons of heavy equipment are loaded aboard Navy ships off Turkey's Mediterranean coast, waiting for the order to unload.

Turkey's powerful generals have made clear that the troops will have to remain aboard the ships for days longer, because the Turkish parliament, which must approve any deal, cannot formally take up the U.S. request until Tuesday, at the earliest.