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U.S. shifts strategy in Turkey

ANKARA, Turkey—In an effort to protect U.S. troops, the Bush Administration is shifting its focus from seeking Turkey's help in a war against Saddam Hussein to containing Turkey's ambitions in northern Iraq.

The Pentagon is concerned that U.S. troops could get caught in a "war within a war" involving Kurdish militias, ethnic Turkmen, Arabs, and possibly Iranian-backed forces jousting for territory, control and oil resources in northern Iraq.

This chaotic scenario would complicate an assault on Baghdad and obstruct the administration's goals of creating a democratic, united Iraq.

The match igniting this tinderbox of ethnic grudges, U.S. officials say, could be a decision by Turkey to send its armed forces into northern Iraq. Turkey currently is massing troops, tanks and artillery along the border.

Turkey is concerned that the Kurds may attempt to create an independent state that would embrace parts of Turkey, home to 15 million Kurds. It also wants to stop an influx of refugees and protect the rights of Iraqi Turkmen, who share a common ancestry.

"The stakes are obviously high for the Iraqis, the Turks and the United States should we send our forces there," said a senior U.S. official Saturday who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We want to prevent scenarios that involve our forces in difficult stances."

The official especially fears the possibility of U.S. forces fighting against the Turks, their historical allies, to stop attacks on another key ally, the Kurds. Such warfare could fracture the U.S. coalition and cause northern Iraq to spiral into a vicious side conflict, the official said.

Neighboring countries like Iran, too, might interpret any unilateral Turkish incursion as a provocation, entangling U.S. soldiers in a wider regional conflict.

To convince Turkey to stay within its own borders, Washington has dispatched Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to northern Iraq, to Ankara to meet next week with Turkish officials and senior Kurdish and Turkmen leaders.

Khalilzad's goal is to find ways to defuse mutual suspicions and to assure Turkey that its concerns can be addressed without having to deploy its military.

The shift in the administration's strategy comes as frustrated U.S. officials say they have all but given up on using Turkey as a launch pad for a northern invasion of Iraq or using its airspace for U.S. warplanes.

Turkey's new and inexperienced leaders have shown no hurry in pushing for legislative approval to host 62,000 U.S. troops or grant use of their air space to U.S. warplanes.

If approval had been forthcoming, the Pentagon would have permitted as many as 40,000 Turkish troops, in coordination with U.S. forces, to enter 12 { miles into northern Iraq to protect Turkish interests. But without authorizing a U.S. deployment on its soil, the deal is now void, said the U.S. official.

Washington is urging Turkey to allow any refugee inflows to be handled by humanitarian agencies under U.S. supervision.

Washington has promised Turkey that it will not allow Iraq to break apart, creating an independent Kurdish nation. And, if necessary, U.S. forces would attack separatist guerrillas from the Kurdistan Worker's Party or PKK to stop them from reviving a violent uprising inside Turkey.

"There's nothing the Turkish forces can do in Iraq that the coalition forces cannot do," said the U.S. official, adding that any Turkish action would have "a negative effect on U.S.-Turkish relations."

Many Turks, meanwhile, view recent Kurdish demonstrations and burnings of the Turkish flag as symbols of a larger Kurdish threat to Turkey's national security.

Kurds, in turn, are concerned that Turkey wants to annex oil-rich areas in Kurdish areas and destroy their institutions. They have warned that they will resist any Turkish military incursion.

"It would be a nightmare scenario for the United States," if the Kurds and Turks fight each other in northern Iraq, said Henri Barkey, an expert on Kurdish and Turkish politics at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

"It would make a mockery of any enterprise to bring democracy to Iraq. It could bring Turkish occupation in northern Iraq, and if not, certainly guerrilla war."


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