Turkey delays invasion; 40,000 troops on Iraqi border

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

ANKARA Turkey has agreed to delay a major ground force invasion of Iraq after pressure from the United States.

Turkish officials said the government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has agreed to suspend plans for an immediate entry of tens of thousands of soldiers into Iraq until Ankara and Washington conclude military cooperation and coordination in the region. Turkey has amassed about 40,000 troops along the Iraqi border.

Turkish officials said 15,000 troops are already in northern Iraq, Middle East Newsline reported.

Ankara is expected to delay any invasion of Iraq until at least the weekend. On Friday, Turkey's National Security Council, chaired by President Ahmed Sezer, will discuss military plans to enter northern Iraq and attack strongholds of the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK.

The suspension of the Turkish invasion comes amid serious disagreement between Ankara and Washington in talks on the future of Iraq. The United States wants talks to be limited to military cooperation while Ankara has demanded guarantees that it would receive a major role in the future of northern Iraq.

"We have taken into account the sensitivities of the United States and the European Union on northern Iraq," Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Hilmi Ozkok said. "As of now, Turkey has no plan to enter the region."

Turkish officials have played down the disagreement and said Ankara and Washington reached a compromise on the Turkish mission in northern Iraq.

They said the United States has agreed that an unspecified number of Turkish soldiers would ensure border security and prevent the influx of refugees from Iraq. Washington has not confirmed the Turkish report.

Tensions were said to have eased over the last two days amid a Bush administration request for $1 billion in grants to Turkey. Erdogan has dropped his demand for advance notice for U.S. flights and Turkish authorities have allowed the unloading of U.S. helicopters and other military equipment at the port of Iskenderun. The shipment was held up for 10 days.

"There is nothing negative in our talks with the Americans," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said. "Everything is moving forward with coordination and mutual understanding."

On Tuesday, U.S. presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad continued talks with Turkish leaders on military operations in northern Iraq. The United States has rejected any Turkish intervention and pledged that it would not allow Kurdish troops to enter the major cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

"We've had a lot of pretty direct discussions with them to make clear our concerns," U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said. "They have legitimate concerns in northern Iraq, but the way to make sure that those get taken care of is working through us, not by intervening unilaterally. We've tried to make that clear."

Currently, Turkish officials said, nearly 15,000 Turkish soldiers are in northern Iraq. They said several thousand U.S. special operations forces are in the Kurdish enclave and are helping direct cruise missile and air attacks against Al Qaida-aligned forces near the Iranian border.

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