Originally created 02/24/03

Top Kurdish officials warn of clashes if Turkish troops cross in northern Iraq



IRBIL, Iraq -- Kurdish officials in northern Iraq warned Sunday of clashes between Turks and Kurds should Turkey follow through on its plan to send thousands of troops into the region in case of a U.S.-led war against Iraq.

The two main Kurdish parties expressed unified opposition to any deployment, charging that the Turkish presence will destabilize the autonomous area in northern Iraq.

"We will oppose any Turkish military intervention," said Hoshyar Zebari, foreign relations chief of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. "No one should see us as bluffing on this issue. Any intervention under whatever pretext will lead to clashes."

Latif Rashid, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, added that "all the Iraqi parties were dismayed," by the Turkish plan.

In exchange for allowing U.S forces to use its territory as a staging ground against Iraq, Turkey wants to send thousands of troops into northern Iraq to prevent the creation of an independent Kurdish state and keep Iraqi Kurdish groups from seizing oil fields.

Turks fear a Kurdish state would encourage the separatist goals of Turkey's own, restive Kurdish minority. Turkey also wants a role in any post-Saddam administration, the prominent Turkish daily Hurriyet reported Sunday.

The Kurds' comments on Sunday raised fears that U.S. troops in northern Iraq could be caught in the often bloody, generations-old struggle between Turks and Kurds for control of the strategic region near the borders with Turkey, Syria and Iran.

Turkish and U.S. officials agreed Sunday to jointly supervise the Iraqi Kurdish armament and disarmament, Turkey's Anatolia news agency reported. The move is an effort to keep weapons from falling into the hands of Turkish Kurdish rebels with bases in northern Iraq. Officials would not confirm the report.

In Washington, Turkey's ambassador to the United States said his country planned to send troops into northern Iraq but only for "humanitarian" reasons. More than 1,500 Iraqi Kurds died of starvation, dehydration and illnesses while trying to reach the Turkish border at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

"There will be a Turkish military presence in northern Iraq," Ambassador Faruk Logoglu told "Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer." on CNN. "But the main purpose of that presence will be to address the humanitarian situation, because we know that a lot of people are going to be displaced because of military action."

Nevertheless, Kurdish leaders said they felt betrayed.

"I was inviting the U.S. to come here," Nasreen Sideek Barwari, a minister of reconstruction for the KDP. "But the moment the U.S. started to talk about Turkey, that's when I started to speak out against a U.S. occupation."

Iraqi opposition leaders have gathered in this autonomous Kurdish-run region to discuss the future of a post-Saddam Iraq. The United States and Britain have threatened to attack Iraq for refusing to relinquish weapons of mass destruction. Baghdad denies it has such weapons.

More than 50 of the 65 delegates elected during a December meeting in London have arrived, enough for a quorum. But the start of the meeting, delegates said, hinges on the possible arrival of Zalmay Khalilzad, the White House envoy to the Iraqi opposition. Khalilzad's plans were unknown. Some delegates also want to wait for the outcome of a Tuesday meeting between Kurds and Turks, which Zebari said would focus on Turkey's military plans.

Delegates met in closed-door sessions Saturday and Sunday over tea and coffee at a Kurdistan Democratic Party office in Salahuddin, 20 miles north of Irbil.

A draft agenda for the meeting has already been drawn up. Delegates also informally agreed to continue "exploratory meetings" until the conference is formally underway and to add 10 additional names to the 65-member steering committee.

Ahmad Chalabi, the president of the Iraqi National Congress, has been pressuring delegates during some of the meetings to use the upcoming conference as a venue to sketch out and declare a de facto Iraqi government, delegates said.

But other delegates insisted the meeting would retain a modest agenda and not result in the declaration of a post-Saddam government. Despite questions about the wisdom of using the U.S. military to administer a post-Saddam Iraq, several said they supported a U.S. occupation.

"We are not the ones who are toppling Saddam," said Ghassam Atiyyah, one of the delegates and a former Iraqi diplomat. "We have to be modest."