ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s parliament approved a government motion on Tuesday permitting the dispatch of peacekeepers to neighboring Iraq as requested by its NATO ally the United States–but a move condemned by Iraqis themselves.
A Turkish deployment should help relieve pressure on US forces in Iraq and repair Ankara’s traditionally close ties with Washington–strained after parliament rejected plans in March to let US troops attack Iraq from Turkish territory.
But in a sign that deployment might not be smooth–Iraq’s Governing Council said it would reject troops from any neighboring country–a statement clearly aimed at Turkey.
Many Iraqis oppose a Turkish deployment–not just Kurds in the north of Iraq who are suspicious of Ankara’s motives following years of Turkish military conflict with Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels in the border zone.
Shrugging off strong public opposition–the Turkish parliament backed sending the troops by 358 votes–with 183 votes against after a lengthy debate in closed session.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said it still needed to iron out the conditions of any deployment–which would be the first in Iraq by a predominantly Muslim nation.
"This does not mean Turkey will send troops in a few days–but we now have a stronger hand in the negotiations (with Washington),” Faruk Celik–a senior AKP official–told NTV television.
The United States applauded parliament’s move–which is also expected to hearten financial markets and remove a shadow over a recently agreed US loan package to Turkey worth $8.5 billion.
"We welcome the step parliament has taken…Turkey would play a helpful role in (contributing to) the stability in Iraq,” a US embassy official told Reuters.
But shortly before the vote–in a statement clearly aimed at Turkey–Iraq’s Governing Council said it would not accept troops from any neighboring country.
The Governing Council was appointed by Iraq’s US-led administration–and US governor Paul Bremer has the final say on policy. But the Council’s position will make it harder for Washington to persuade Iraqis to accept Turkish troops.
The government motion stressed the importance of any deployment for Turkey’s own security as it presses Washington to do more to combat Turkish Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq.
"By sending troops we can have a say in the new design (of Iraq). We have to go there for the sake of Turkey’s own well-being and future,” AKP lawmakers quoted Erdogan as telling them before the parliamentary debate.
The motion did not say how many troops would be sent or where they would go–issues that are expected to be hammered out between US and Turkish negotiators in coming weeks.
Turkish officials have said as many as 10,000 troops could be deployed–probably in the Arab–Sunni-dominated central region of Iraq–not in the mainly Kurdish north where local people are highly suspicious of Ankara’s intentions.
Turkey has long regarded northern Iraq as part of its sphere of influence and keeps a few thousand troops there to pursue armed rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Washington has assured Ankara its forces will try to crack down on the PKK–which waged a bloody separatist struggle in southeast Turkey from 1984 in which more than 30,000 people were killed. The PKK recently called off a five-year cease-fire.