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Turkey denies sending troops into Iraq

CIZRE, Turkey—The Turkish army on Saturday denied reports that it had sent fresh troops into northern Iraq, and it came under intense pressure from other NATO countries to stay out of the conflict or lose support from its allies.

Germany threatened to pull its radar and electronics specialists off the four AWACS planes that fly over Turkey and to withdraw the 46 Patriot missiles it has supplied for Turkey's protection if Turkey insists on deploying its troops.

The United States has been lobbying Turkey to keep its soldiers at the border for fear that further incursion would incite the ethnic Kurdish population in northern Iraq.

When the Turkish Parliament approved opening its airspace to U.S. warplanes on Thursday, it also authorized sending troops across the border to stem the flow of Kurdish refugees and to ensure that a power vacuum in northern Iraq didn't foment terrorist activities.

Friday night, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said troops would enter the region, and local media reported that as many as 1,500 soldiers had crossed.

But the army's general staff issued a statement Saturday denying the troop movements, though Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim acknowledged in Ankara that there are "a certain number of Turkish troops in northern Iraq already for the security of the borders."

The Turkish army is notoriously secretive. It is keeping reporters away from its formations in Cizre and Silopi, two worn, dusty towns by the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi borders. Photographs are forbidden. Identity papers are checked repeatedly.

For 12 years, Turkey has kept 5,000 soldiers in northern Iraq to ensure that Kurds don't flow over the borders, as more than 450,000 did after the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. The Turkish government, which has fought Kurdish guerillas in southeast Turkey, is wary of Kurds joining together and declaring a new state.

U.S. officials are worried that Turkish troops could destabilize northern Iraq by entering into battle with Kurdish militants. On Saturday, after news media reports that Turkey was marshaling its troops near the border, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party told a news conference that if Turkish forces moved south, "there would be clashes."

Some analysts see Turkey's sensitivity toward Kurdish independence, and its resentment of American support for the Kurds, as reasons for its failure to let the United States use the country as a staging area for a northern front.

Since November, the United States had pressed for access to bases in Turkey and permission to move its troops across Turkish soil. After a vote on that request failed March 1 in Turkey's parliament, the United States pulled an offer of more aid to Turkey. On Thursday, after the war had started, Turkey finally opened two air corridors for American warplanes.

Twenty cargo ships, holding equipment for the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, will be rerouted through the Suez Canal as early as next week, after having waited off Turkey's Mediterranean coast for weeks. The soldiers will deploy through Kuwait instead of Turkey.


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