Bush says No to Turkish troops entering northern Iraq

US President George W Bush said yesterday he had made it “very clear” to Turkey that its troops should not unilaterally enter northern Iraq.

“We’re making it very clear to the Turks that we expect them not to come into northern Iraq. We’re in constant touch with the Turkish military as well as Turkish politicians. They know our policy,” he said. “And they know we’re working with the Kurds to make sure there’s not an incident that would cause there to be an excuse to go in.”

Turkey said on Saturday there was no truth in reports it had sent troops into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq overnight, as US, European and NATO leaders made clear they wanted Ankara to stay out.

Germany led NATO voices threatening action, saying it would withdraw its crews from the alliance’s AWACS surveillance planes patrolling the airspace over Turkey, if Ankara became a belligerent force in northern Iraq.

The United States signalled that it did not want Turkey to upset its military campaign to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by triggering any fighting with Kurdish groups Ankara suspects of ambitions to establish an independent Kurdish state.

Turkey’s government and military dismissed the reports, which quoted military sources as saying Ankara had sent more than 1,500 troops into northern Iraq as part of plans to control any refugee exodus from the US-led war against Baghdad and to prevent any Kurdish “terrorist activity”.

“The reports in question are not true. They do not reflect reality,” a military statement said. “Turkish forces have made every preparation and are ready to implement their plans when the situation and conditions dictate.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said on Friday Turkey would send troops into northern Iraq to protect national interests, but gave no timetable.

NATO Secretary General George Robertson said Gul assured him on Saturday that reports of a deployment overnight were untrue.

In Washington, a US official said: “We know the Turks think that it’s necessary to use the military to establish a humanitarian corridor in the north, but frankly we don’t agree.”

Any fighting between Turkish troops and Kurdish groups could seriously disrupt the US military campaign to topple Saddam and damage US plans to pull a fragmented country together.

Turkey is concerned that a Kurdish state would reignite armed Kurdish separatism in south-eastern Turkey that cost 30,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s. Iraqi Kurdish groups, for their part, fear Turkey might move to crush the autonomy they have enjoyed since Baghdad lost control of the area after the 1991 Gulf War.

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