Turkey to Back But Not Fight Any Iraq War

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey declared on Thursday that its troops would not fight in any US-led war in Iraq and–as parliament met for a key debate on the crisis–said it still held out hopes for a peaceful solution.

But while publicly opposing any war–the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appears to be yielding to the realities of its close alliance with Washington. Thursday marked the first stage in a two-step approach towards allowing US forces to deploy here for an attack on Iraq if America acts.

Parliament highlighted the sensitivity of the Iraq issue when–amid protests from the opposition Republican People’s Party–it voted to sit in closed session for a debate on allowing the US military to upgrade Turkish bases for use in any attack. A vote was expected later in the afternoon.

"Turkey will not enter a war. The Turkish Armed Forces will not enter combat,” Prime Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters.

Turkey is trying to walk a thin line between helping its ally Washington and preserving ancient ties with neighbor Iraq.

But Iraq’s ambassador to Ankara was not convinced–warning that aiding the United States amounted to joining a war.

"Countries that participate in that way should know that they commit a great crime and will see that they made a strategic mistake–because Iraq has never shown them enmity or done them damage,” Ambassador Talib Abid Salih El Dileyimi told reporters.

A parliamentary decision on the "second stage”–to allow a larger US presence that could stage a possible invasion of northern Iraq–is due to come before parliament on February 18. The United States seeks to avoid Turkish involvement in any fighting.

Turkey opposes any war as potentially destabilizing and has campaigned with regional countries to try to bring a peaceful settlement. Ankara also fears economic disruption could undermine the country’s recovery from economic crisis.

Public opposition to a war is strong and protesters on Thursday draped a huge banner reading "No to War” on a building in the center of Istanbul.

The opposition party is expected to oppose the parliamentary measures–but Gul’s AKP has the large majority and–probably–the discipline needed to pass it.

Peace Hopes Not Dead

Gul said he had not abandoned hope war could be averted.

"We still believe peace can be achieved,” he said. "The reason we have not combined the two measures (on allowing US forces) is to give a chance for peace,” he said.

Turkish forces are already inside northern Iraq and more are expected to join them in the coming months but Turkey says the deployment is aimed at providing for any refugees and preventing the break-up of Iraq.

Turkey is concerned that Kurds in the north of Iraq could use a war to stake a bid for their own independent state. Ankara fears Kurdish independence in Iraq could fuel violent separatism among its own Kurdish population in the southeast.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders were in the Turkish capital on Thursday for talks with US and Turkish officials expected to focus on plans for a post-war Iraq.

"We did not discuss military operations. We talked about peace–a peaceful solution and strengthening our brotherhood,” said Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani.

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