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Kurds say they will attack any Turkish troops entering Iraq

IRBIL, Iraq—Rebel Kurdish leaders warned Sunday that Turkish troops will be attacked if they are allowed to enter northern Iraq in return for Turkey's support for a U.S. invasion.

"Any intervention under any pretext whatsoever will lead to clashes," said Hoshiyar Zebari, a senior official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of two parties that control the Kurd-dominated north. "Nobody should think we are bluffing on this issue."

Zebari and Latif Rashid, a senior official with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), told reporters that their parties do not plan a confrontation. But popular anger at Turkish intervention would trigger "uncontrolled clashes," Zebari said.

The Bush administration reportedly is close to finalizing an agreement that would allow Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq as part of a deal under which U.S. troops could use Turkish bases as staging areas for an invasion.

Turkey has for years been struggling to crush its own Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK.

Ankara says its forces are needed to prevent the KDP and PUK from reviving a drive for independence that could re-energize the PKK.

The Kurds' comments represented the most explicit warning to date to the Bush administration and Turkey against concluding a plan for tens of thousands of Turkish troops to flow into northern Iraq behind invading U.S. forces.

The dispute could seriously complicate the Kurds' cooperation in the Pentagon's strategy to use their Vermont-size enclave to open a northern front against Saddam Hussein, who withdrew his forces from the area in 1991.

In the longer term, U.S. forces that would occupy Iraq after ousting Saddam could become enmeshed in a bloody tussle over oil-rich territory that could trigger wider instability and erase any hope of building a stable democracy.

"It will be bad for the image of the United States, Britain and other countries who want to help Iraq, to see two of their allies, Turkey and Kurdistan, at each other's throats," said Zebari.

He said the Kurdish officials and the Turkish military would hold talks on Tuesday.

Preparations for a possible Turkish incursion may already be underway.

On Sunday afternoon, about 50 Turkish tanks, dozens of armored troop carriers, and numerous heavily armed commando units rolled into the mud-caked town of Cizre, just a few miles from the Iraqi border.

One soldier said the tanks had come from the Iranian-Turkish border near Mount Ararat.

The lightly armed Kurds would be no match for NATO member Turkey in a conventional fight. But they have taken to the mountains before to wage guerrilla wars against Saddam despite his army's superior numbers and arms.

Turkey especially wants to stop the KDP and PUK from seizing the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul as that would give the Kurds control of huge financial resources.

Under an apparent compromise with the Pentagon, Turkish forces would remain under Turkish command, and could surround—but not capture—Mosul or Kirkuk.

Turkish troops would also move to eradicate an estimated 5,000 PKK fighters hiding in northern Iraq.

Turkish forces also would contain any mass exodus of Kurds. Some 500,000 fled toward Turkey when Saddam crushed a Kurdish uprising instigated and then abandoned by President Bush's father after the 1991 Gulf War. Turkish officials say PKK rebels entered Turkey with refugees.

There are some Turkish units and American operatives already inside Iraq, apparently preparing to establish a nine-mile deep buffer zone.

Zebari and Latif repeated their parties' renunciations of independence, and commitments to incorporating the Kurdish enclave into a new Iraqi federation with Sunni and Shiite Arabs and other groups.

Latif reiterated a pledge that Kurdish forces would not be sent into Kirkuk and Mosul.

The cities were once part of the Ottoman Empire, and Kurdish officials charge that Turkey has long sought to recover the territory and the oilfields.

They warn that a long-term Turkish presence could provoke a struggle for regional domination between Turkey and Iran, which could respond with its own incursion.

The future of Kirkuk is a deeply emotional issue for the Kurds. Saddam has expelled hundreds of thousands from the area and resettled Arabs in their homes. Former residents, many living in squalid colonies, are desperate to return.

Non-Kurdish Iraqi opposition parties share the Kurds' rejection of Turkish military intervention.

They are also incensed over the Bush administration's plan for a U.S. military administrator to govern Iraq for up to two years after Saddam's removal.

Opposition leaders say the U.S. proposal would leave in place many of Saddam's loyalists and preserve minority Sunni Arab domination of the Iraqi government.

The disputes will almost certainly sour the reception for Zalmay Khalilzad, a special White House envoy, at the opposition's first conference to be held on Iraqi soil in a decade.

The repeatedly delayed meeting, due to start Monday or Tuesday near the KDP headquarters of Irbil, was called to continue work on a blueprint laying out Iraq's transition from dictatorship to democracy.


(McDonald reported from Silopi, Turkey)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.