Invasion by Turkey a rumor - for now

Crowd gathers at border to see military convoy, but none is witnessed

War in Iraq

March 23, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SILOPI, Turkey - A somber crowd lined main street in this smuggler's town on the Iraqi border yesterday, waiting tensely to catch a glimpse of Turks invading.

But they never showed up. And for the moment at least, a second war on Iraqi soil was avoided.

Rumors had spread among the Kurds here that a large Turkish military convoy would pass through town on its way to the main border crossing into northern Iraq, a prospect that has alarmed not only the Kurdish population on both sides of the border, but also policy-makers in Washington. As the afternoon wore on, all that barreled down the road was the usual mix of taxis, buses and horse-drawn carts.

Turkish military patrols bounced around the streets in open-backed vehicles, but they were part of the heavy security in Silopi, once a center of support for Kurdish separatists fighting the Turkish government in Ankara.

"What's happening?" one raggedly dressed shoeshine boy demanded. He seemed to know about as much as anyone else waiting along the muddy street near the town bus station and the Harbur Hotel.

An estimated 12 million Kurds live in southeast Turkey, where Kurdish guerrillas fought a 15-year civil war that ended with a cease-fire in 1999. About 30,000 people died in the conflict.

Millions of other Kurds live just across the Harbur River in northern Iraq, where they have enjoyed quasi-independence since the 1991 gulf war, protected from Baghdad by a coalition-enforced no-fly zone.

The Turks have several thousand troops stationed in northern Iraq, to prevent cross-border raids by Kurdish guerillas. But Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul vowed Thursday night to dispatch more soldiers to aid refugees and thwart potential attacks by Kurdish fighters.

More important, perhaps, the Turks fear that the Kurds want to seize the opportunity to carve out a full-fledged independent state in northern Iraq. Turkey is determined to prevent that on the theory that it would revive separatist sentiment on this side of the border.

Iraqi Kurdish groups say they would resist any major new infusion of Turkish troops, charging that the Turkish government has its eyes on Iraqi oil fields. Some Kurdish civilians have vowed to form a human chain across the roads leading south from the Harbur crossing.

In Kuwait, coalition commander Gen. Tommy R. Franks was asked if Turkey was complicating the war in Iraq.

"Actually I believe that the Turkish formations that we see in northern Iraq are very light formations," Franks said. "We see them move in and out of Turkey. There is continuing discussion, I know, at the political level to decide exactly how much of that, when, is acceptable and so forth."

This month, Human Rights Watch warned that "if very large numbers of Turkish forces enter northern Iraq, there is a risk they will resort to the mass detention and torture, political killings, `disappearances' and village burning that they used when fighting over similar terrain in southeast Turkey."

Clashes in northern Iraq between the Turks and the Kurds could be more than just a distraction for the United States. Both are key allies in the war against the regime of Saddam Hussein. Some experts fear that if the two sides go to war, the area could descend into the kind of ethnic violence that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

Hoping to avert disaster, the Bush administration has in recent weeks opposed Turkish proposals to send troops across the border, even as the Pentagon pressed for permission to deploy 62,000 troops on Turkish soil.

The dispute apparently scuttled the Pentagon's hopes to use Turkey as a staging area for opening a northern front against Iraq and complicated negotiations Thursday over letting the United States send warplanes and missiles through Turkey's airspace, delaying the airspace permission for 24 hours. Turkey reportedly wanted to enter northern Iraq in return.

The Pentagon apparently decided to set up a staging area in eastern Jordan, bypassing Turkey.

Diplomatic relations between Turkey and the United States, two longtime allies, have been severely strained.

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