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Turkish troops to stay home—for now

ANKARA, Turkey—Seeking to reassure anxious allies, Turkey's military chief said Wednesday that his troops would move into northern Iraq only in coordination with U.S. commanders.

Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, chief of staff of the Turkish armed forces, said that only a humanitarian disaster, attacks on Turks or infighting among Kurdish groups would trigger the deployment of troops stationed in his country's southeast.

"We have no plan to establish a permanent presence in northern Iraq," he said, reading from a statement at a news conference in Diyarbakir. "We will not engage in any offensive clashes. We have no secret intentions, no hidden agenda and no hostile sentiments toward the people in the area."

His words came a day after President Bush proposed to Congress giving Turkey grants and loans that could total $8.5 billion. The Bush administration withdrew a prior offer of $30 billion in grants and loans after Turkey refused to let U.S. troops enter the country to attack Iraq.

The general pointed out that Turkish troops already patrol a 12-mile buffer zone inside northern Iraq. Since 1991, a Turkish force ranging from 3,500 to 15,000 has worked there.

Ozkok, who as military leader is Turkey's most powerful figure, laid out three conditions that could prompt Turkey to send more troops across its rugged 218-mile border with Iraq: "If our existing soldiers in northern Iraq are attacked for any reason, or if there is a large flow of refugees into Turkey due to unexpected developments in the war, or if there are clashes between different militia groups in the area."

Meeting in Ankara, Turkish and U.S. officials have failed to reach agreement on Turkey's deployment of troops. Turkey insists on the right to use its military to stem a refugee crisis such as the one that followed the 1991 Gulf War, when nearly 500,000 Kurds fled across the border. Among them were Kurdish extremists who, Turkish officials say, inflamed the separatist ambitions of Kurds living in southeastern Turkey.

The U.S. is concerned that Kurds and Turks would fight each other, creating a sort of pocket war that could endanger coalition forces.

A Western diplomat in Turkey said the general's announcement indicated Turkey was showing restraint.

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have said Turkish troop deployment would be problematic. NATO allies Germany, France and Belgium have pressured Turkey to keep its troops inside its own border.

In a barb apparently directed at U.S. negotiators, the general said he could not understand those who saw threats across an ocean but were blind to those across a border.

One day, he said, Turkey's help might be needed in the U.S.-led fight. "If things happen to get out of hand in northern Iraq, our friends and allies might one day ask us to go in to restore order ... rather than object to it," Ozkok said.


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