The United States and Turkey are locked in strenuous negotiations over what role Turkey would play in a war with neighboring Iraq, a conflict that could lead Turkey to inject thousands of additional troops into the volatile Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
Turkey already maintains 2,000 to 5,000 troops in northern Iraq, assigned, in conjunction with Kurdish militias that control the area, to chase remnants of the Kurdish Workers' Party guerrilla force, which seeks autonomy for Turkey's large Kurdish minority.
But Washington may recruit Turkey to police the flow of refugees and guard prisoners of war in case of a conflict with Iraq, whose northern border abuts southeastern Turkey for about 200 miles and would be a logical escape route for defeated Iraqis. Because the Turks want to keep any fleeing Iraqis on the Iraqi side of the border, the plan would require Turkey to increase its military presence in Iraq by thousands of troops, Western diplomats and Turkish officials say.
Such an arrangement is far from being finalized. Moreover, a generally sour outlook here about possible repercussions from the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein is complicating the Turkish-U.S. talks.
Turkey wants to exact a financial reward from any such cooperation. Its economy is in recession, and Turkish officials say that the country would suffer further from a war and its aftermath. Turkey is looking for $4 billion to $6 billion in aid, news reports here say, as well as trade concessions from the United States.
The Turks are also suspicious of the motives of Washington's main helpmates in Iraq, the Kurds in the north. Turkey wants guarantees that the Iraqi Kurds will not establish an independent state, or even achieve a degree of autonomy that could awaken the crushed separatist dreams of Turkey's Kurdish minority.
Gen. Tommy R. Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, visited Ankara yesterday for talks with top Turkish military officials on a Turkish ground role in any war with Iraq, as well as use of the big Incirlik Air Base in southeastern Turkey for bomb runs over Iraq.
Franks and Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, the supreme allied commander in Europe, met with Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, the Turkish chief of staff, who is scheduled to visit Washington in two weeks. The military dominates Turkey's policymaking body, the National Security Council, and will make the final decision on Turkey's stand. The Americans met for three hours with Turkish officers and discussed "just about everything," a U.S. official said.
Turkish officials have warned that Kurdish efforts to expand the autonomous zone in the north -- now maintained under an umbrella of U.S. and British air patrols -- could prompt Turkey to grab territory for itself. Over the weekend, Turkish Foreign Minister Sukru Sina Gurel warned the Iraqi Kurds "to heed our warnings" against setting up a state.
"Turkish relations with the Kurds ride on thin ice," said a Western diplomat. "It's a big issue."
Western diplomats and Turkish officials say there will be no definitive decision on Turkey's role in Iraq until the U.N. Security Council votes on a resolution designed, from Washington's point of view, to give the United States the authority to use military force. A Turkish decision may also await the results of Nov. 3 parliamentary elections in Turkey, in which Iraq has emerged as a major issue, Western diplomats say.
For Turks, the idea of ending Hussein's rule in Baghdad is an unwelcome distraction from their campaign to join the European Union. In the Turkish view, the country has only recently emerged from a string of knotty regional problems that slowed its progress toward that goal.
One was the battle with Kurdish nationalists that gave Turkey a reputation as a human rights abuser. In the 1990s, conflict in the Balkans provided Turkey with waves of refugees. And Turkish officials argue that the country lost billions of dollars in tourist revenue and trade with Iraq during and after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
With the Balkans quiescent and Iraq stable, though hemmed in by economic sanctions, Turkey felt it was free to turn its full attention to the EU. With U.S. support, Ankara is trying to persuade the EU to set a date for talks that it hopes would lead to membership. Turkish officials say they want to look west toward prosperity, not south toward conflict.
"We need to keep disruptions away from Turkey," a senior Turkish official said in a recent interview.
"We have gotten along with all kinds of Iraqi regimes," added a senior Foreign Ministry official. "Many would agree that Saddam is not an asset, but we are concerned about a lot of consequences."
"In the Turkish mind," said a U.S. diplomat, "we are creating a mess for Turkey."
With war looming, the Iraqi Kurds have fashioned a proposed constitution for expanded autonomy in a new, federalized Iraq. The Kurdish drive is widely regarded here as a campaign for independence. As a result, war and Kurdish autonomy have become dominant issues in the campaign for parliamentary elections.
Eighteen parties are vying for seats, and politicians with low ratings in opinion polls, notably Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, are trying to make hay out of Turkish insecurities. "The situation in northern Iraq has gotten out of hand," Ecevit warned recently.
Northern Iraq is under the control of two militia groups -- the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Their enclaves are under the protection of a "no-fly" zone patrolled by U.S. and British warplanes. The overflights bar the Iraqi air force from the area.
Turkey is a partner in the no-fly zone; the U.S. and British planes take off from Incirlik. In addition, the two militia groups help Turkey keep guerrilla remnants of the Kurdish Workers' Party pinned down in the mountains of northern Iraq.
"Those [Iraqi Kurdish] communities' welfare and security have until now been under Turkey's safeguard. If they want to continue like this, then they need to behave accordingly," Gurel, the foreign minister, said over the weekend. "Our presence in north Iraq will continue."
The Bush administration has asserted that there are no plans to split up Iraq. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell recently welcomed the convening of a Kurdish regional parliament as a step toward a "democratic, pluralistic and united Iraq" with the country's "territorial integrity intact."
While seeking Kurdish help against Hussein's government and military, U.S. officials oppose the Kurds' desire to make their regional capital in Kirkuk, the main city in an oil-rich zone of northern Iraq.
The Kirkuk issue in particular has raised Turkish qualms. Turkish officials and newspapers argue that the town is traditionally Turkish and is populated largely by the Iraqi Turkmen minority, an ethnic group that has been dispersed over the years by successive Iraqi governments. A senior Turkish official put the total Iraqi Turkmen population at 2.5 million. The Kurds say they number about 700,000.
Northern Iraq is already a cluttered arena of potentially hostile forces, Western diplomats say. In addition to the Turkish troops stationed in the northernmost reaches, the two militia groups boast a combined force of 50,000 men armed with rifles and antitank weapons.
Hussein maintains divisions of his elite Republican Guard in Mosul and Kirkuk. Baghdad also has established regular forces along the rest of a curved line separating Kurdish autonomous zones from the rest of Iraq. Recent visitors to the area observed construction of earthworks to shelter troops, tanks and artillery.
In the eastern end of the Kurdish zone, along the border with Iran, about 400 Islamic fundamentalist fighters, including some Arab fugitives from al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, are holed up in the mountains. Turkish and Western officials say that group, Ansar al-Islam, is backed by Iran, one of the latest in a series of efforts by Iran to make its presence felt in Iraq.