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Turkmens' dream for their own territory could haunt U.S. war effort in Iraq

ANKARA, Turkey—A large yellow swath marking "Turkmeneli" spreads across the maps of Iraq that hang on the walls of ethnic Turks.

It marks what the Turkmens call their ancestral home—a land that also hosts Iraq's Kurdish minority—and the Turkmens' dream for a territory to call their own could haunt U.S. generals who are planning war against Saddam Hussein.

U.S. officials met again Wednesday with Iraqi opposition leaders—including Kurds and Turkmens—in Ankara to talk about life after Saddam, and the Turkmens made no secret of their anger.

They say that the Kurds, who make up most of northern Iraq, don't want any Turkmens on a leadership council that could represent the Iraqi people. For their own safety, they say, they want Turkey's military to move across the border to protect them.

That prospect enrages the Kurds, who harbor horrific memories of Turkish atrocities against Kurds.

Failure to resolve the dispute could deeply mar any U.S. occupation of Iraq, should the result be a bloody ethnic war in the north of the country.

Orhan Ketene, the Washington representative of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, stewed as he left the meeting of opposition leaders, saying the Kurds were slighting and threatening 3 million ethnic Turks. Western observers and Kurds place the number of Turkmens—who are ethnically related to the people of Turkey—at fewer than 500,000.

"We don't feel secure," Ketene said, predicting that the rights of Turkmens were so important to Ankara that the Parliament might not agree to cooperate with U.S. war plans unless the Turkish army could cross the border.

Turkey's justice minister announced Wednesday that the United States has agreed to allow the Turks to have a presence across the border. But Washington has announced no such thing, and in Ankara U.S. officials repeatedly have told Turkish representatives that deploying an army would make matters worse.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has voiced concern about any Turkish military action, saying the Bush administration doesn't want "to see anything happen that would precipitate a crisis between Turkey and the Kurdish populations in northern Iraq."

The Turkmen cause could do exactly that. Turkmens are Iraq's third largest ethnic group after the Arabs and Kurds, and Ankara wants Washington to provide stronger guarantees that the Turkmens will have the same political, cultural and territorial rights as the Kurds in a postwar Iraq.

Such rights would allow Turkey to shape a postwar Iraq through the Turkmens. The Turkmens, in effect, would become a buffer against Kurdish aspirations to forge an independent state that could embrace parts of Turkey.

"The Turkmens are a card in the overall Iraq game, and if Turkey uses this card to its maximum effect, Turkey's insecurities will be helped." said Tarik Oguzlu, a political analyst who has written a study on the Turkmens. "The Turkmens are now considered a kind of leverage, both with the Kurds and the Americans."

For decades, the Iraqi regime denied Turkmens government jobs and other rights. Thousands were chased away from their homes—as were Kurds—and replaced by southern Arabs under Saddam's infamous "Arabization" campaign.

Turkey, concerned about its relations with Baghdad, rarely voiced any protest, even during alleged killings of Turkmens in the 1950s and 1980s.

But since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, there's been a national awakening to the Turkmens' cause. Newspaper columnists liken them to Turkish Cypriots, in whose defense the Turkish military invaded the northern part of Cyprus in 1974 and never left.

Nowhere is the nationalist fire stronger than within the ranks of the Iraqi Turkmen Front. Officially, the Turkmen Front denies it wants its own separate region, and its key backer, Turkey, insists it wants to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity. But the Turkmen Front's supporters talk of Turkmeneli in determined tones.

"We want to get rid of Saddam," said Saddren Mhutar, 57, a slim, talkative businessman who fled Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. "And then we want autonomy in the Turkmen region."

It's a dream fueled by rivaling statistics and historical claims. Turkmeneli would include the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Turkmen Front claims as the cradle of its culture and heritage. The Kurds, too, claim Kirkuk as their historical mecca and see it as a totem of their suffering under Saddam.

"Who will save us from the Kurds after Saddam?" said Muzaffer Avci, 36, a Turkmen refugee who supports a Turkish military invasion. "The Kurds are more dangerous than Saddam."


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