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Turkish troops won't stay in Iraq, U.S. official says

SALAHADDIN, Iraq—A senior White House official on Wednesday sought to settle a fight between two potential allies in any war against Iraq—Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdish opposition.

Kurdish opposition leaders object to a U.S. plan to give Turkey a role in an invasion of Iraq.

The dispute over a Turkish role threatens to jeopardize the Pentagon's invasion plans or trap U.S. soldiers in the middle of a struggle for oil-rich territory. Failure to settle the matter could make it more difficult for the United States to achieve President Bush's goal of transforming Iraq into a stable democracy.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a special U.S. envoy who is attending an Iraqi opposition conference in Kurd-controlled northern Iraq, said that Turkish troops would only cross into northern Iraq in coordination with U.S.-led forces, and that they would have to pull out when the allies did. But he also said the United States had not yet won Turkey's agreement to coordinate its troop movements in that way.

"Our position is abundantly clear: No movement . . . by any power into Iraq unless it is fully coordinated with the coalition. Period. End of sentence. And withdrawal when the coalition withdraws," Khalilzad said after the opening session of the Iraqi opposition's first conference on Iraqi soil in a decade.

Khalilzad's comments at a news conference were designed to persuade opposition leaders to acquiesce to a deal in which the United States could use Turkish bases to invade northern Iraq. As part of the bargain, Turkish troops would be allowed to cross into the Kurd-held region.

Hoshiyar Zebari, a senior official of Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of two main rebel Kurdish parties and the host of the conference, said the Kurds remained dead set against the entry of Turkish troops.

"Our position is very clear: No intervention," he said.

Khalilzad's acknowledgment that Turkey had not agreed to coordinate its troop movements with U.S. commanders indicated that the issue was holding up a vote by Turkey's parliament to allow U.S. troops to use the bases.

Turkey, which has a large Kurdish minority of its own, insists that it must send tens of thousands of troops behind a U.S.-led assault in the north to prevent the Iraqi Kurds from declaring independence.

The Iraqi Kurds have repeatedly renounced secession and warn that any Turkish troops entering their Vermont-size enclave would be attacked.

They and other Iraqi opposition groups accuse Turkey of manufacturing the threat of Kurdish secession as a pretext for seizing oil-bearing Iraqi territory. The Turkish government also seeks to crush 12 years of Kurdish self-rule in Iraq in order to smother the aspirations for autonomy of Turkey's own Kurds, they say.

The Iraqi Kurds have run quasi-democratic administrations since Saddam withdrew his forces from much of northern Iraq after the establishment of a U.S.- and British-patrolled no fly zone in 1991.

The Pentagon believes it could topple Saddam most quickly and with the fewest casualties if U.S.-led forces advance on Baghdad simultaneously from Kuwait in the south and from Turkey in the north.

Khalilzad, a senior National Security Council official who is the highest-ranking Muslim in the Bush administration, made no mention of the dispute in a speech to the opposition conference.

Instead, he attempted to address the leaders' deep misgivings over U.S. plans for running Iraq after Saddam's removal.

He told the conference that U.S. occupation troops would be withdrawn as soon as a stable, democratically elected government was in place.

"The United States has no desire to govern Iraq," he declared.

But Khalilzad made no specific mention of the Bush administration's intention to appoint a U.S. military administrator for up to two years. It was only at the later news conference that he reluctantly acknowledged the plan.

Washington is concerned that Saddam's removal could unleash pent-up tensions between ethnic and religious groups that could shatter the country.

The proposal for a U.S. military administration has provoked deep resentment among opposition leaders of the country's majority Shiite Arabs, and Sunni Arabs, Kurds and other ethnic minority groups. They worry they would be bypassed, leaving senior members of Saddam's Baath Party in place.

"We say to the United States of America we are your friends. We are your allies, but we are not your agents," declared Ahmed Chalabi, head of the U.S.-funded Iraqi National Congress, the main opposition umbrella group.

Khalilzad said that the United States will need Iraqis inside and outside the country to help keep order, distribute humanitarian aid and assist in reconstruction after Saddam's downfall.

The opposition leaders' meeting on a post-Saddam transition was expected to end on Thursday or Friday.


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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-OPPOSITION