ANKARA (Reuters) –Turkey’s powerful armed forces on Wednesday backed a tentative government move to submit a fresh motion to parliament allowing US troops to open a "northern front” against Iraq from Muslim Turkey.
Chief of the General Staff Hilmi Ozkok said Turkey would be better off in any war than out of it–and argued that opening an extra front against Iraq from Turkey would mean a short war.
The rare public statement from the influential general could boost US hopes for a deal with its NATO ally after a pledge of billions of dollars in aid failed to convince parliament last weekend to allow 62,000 US soldiers to deploy.
The government has signaled it may table a second motion after its first was narrowly defeated in a stunning vote that upset US military planning. A northern front from Turkey could shorten any war and cut the number of US casualties.
"The Turkish armed forces’ view is the same as the government’s and is reflected in the motion our government sent to parliament,” Ozkok told reporters. "The war will be short if a second front is opened from the north.”
Ozkok said Turkey would suffer consequences of a war whether it was involved or not and was better placed to minimize damage if it sided with the United States–which is offering up to $30 billion in gran’s and loan guarantees.
Turkey has spent months negotiating with the United States over the war aid package–which is designed to compensate Turkey for an expected drop in tourism revenue and rises in the price of oil and cost of borrowing.
Ozkok’s remarks cheered investors hoping parliament will pass a second motion. The weekend vote had sparked sharp falls in markets–with fears Turkey’s weak economy could not withstand the shock of a war that would hurt tourism and trade.
Stocks jumped nearly three percent from negative territory earlier in the day–and the lira rallied to 1,596,000 against the dollar–recovering all of its losses from this week’s slide.
A senior official in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said on Wednesday he expected the motion would pass if parliament voted again on allowing in US troops.
Prime Minister Abdullah Gul–attending a Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting in Qatar–welcomed Ozkok’s remarks.
Turkey’s armed forces wield significant influence on policy–particularly where national security is concerned.
A meeting last week of the National Security Council–where generals advise elected officials–did not end in a strong statement of support for the deployment–raising doubts the military backed the idea of US troops on Turkish soil.
Open backing from the military will strengthen the hand of AKP leader Tayyip Erdogan as he battles rebellion in his party.
Erdogan faces a Sunday by-election that is expected to spell the end of a political ban for inciting religious hatred and open the way for him to take over the premiership from Gul.
Erdogan and the military rarely see eye-to-eye. Secularist generals suspect him of harboring Islamist policies.
The second motion before parliament is expected to insist on a major deployment of Turkish troops to Kurdish-run northern Iraq–which Turkey sees as an area of strategic interest.
Turkey is concerned the Kurds of northern Iraq will use a war to entrench the autonomy from Iraqi control they have enjoyed since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
Ozkok issued a veiled warning that Turkey would intervene to prevent the rise of a new Kurdish state.
"I would remind them (Kurdish leaders) that we have the right to defend our legitimate national interests and would request them to be measured and cooperative,” Ozkok said.
"We were beside them in their most difficult days… Those who forget the past will be bad architects for the future.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the prospect of a Turkish move into northern Iraq was a serious worry–given the record of the military in battling Kurdish rebels at home.
"If Turkish operations in northern Iraq bear any resemblance to those in southeastern Turkey–we can expect to see a human rights disaster,” said Human Rights Watch’s Elizabeth Andersen.
More than 30,000 people died during fighting in the 1980s and 1990s in Turkey’s southeast between security forces and Kurdish rebels waging a campaign for an independent homeland.
Human rights activists have accused the Turkish military of violating civilians’ rights during the clashes–which have largely died off since the 1999 capture of the rebel commander.