Iraqi Kurds Tell Turkey to Stay out of Iraq

SULAYMANIYAH (Reuters)–An Iraqi Kurdish leader said on Tuesday that neighboring Turkey–which plans to send troops into northern Iraq if there is a war–should stay out or risk dragging other regional powers into the country.

The United States has told the Kurds that Turkey would set up a buffer zone inside Iraq along the length of its border to control any flow of refugees who might try to flee a possible conflict.

"The best thing the neighbors can do is to stay out as any country entering Iraq could draw in other neighboring countries and complicate the transition to democracy,” said Barham Salah–prime minister of one half of the breakaway Kurdish region that has been self-governing since the Gulf War.

He said Turkey–which has for decades fought its own Kurdish rebels–would do better to send aid to the Kurds to prevent them having to flee in the first place.

Ankara already has some 5,000 troops inside northern Iraq to guard against infiltration into Turkey by Turkish Kurd rebels in the mountains there–but Iraqi Kurds fear the extra troops would be sent deeper into northern Iraq to quash their aspirations for autonomy.

Turkey has said it will take "necessary measures” to prevent the Kurds trying to take the two key oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk on the edge of the Kurdish region which broke from Baghdad rule at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

Washington is looking to Turkey for use of its bases as a springboard for a possible northern offensive against Baghdad. Many Kurds fear Washington might ignore Kurdish aspirations if it has to in order to oust President Saddam Hussein.

TROUBLES AHEAD

The many–often bitterly divided Iraqi opposition groups are due to hold a meeting later this month inside the Kurdish enclave to strengthen their bid for a say in the future of Iraq.

Salah said the meeting–originally due on January 15–then postponed till February 15–would now start between February 17 and 20.

"The Iraqi opposition has to put its house in order…then the chances of the United States and the international community taking us seriously will be much better,” he said.

While Iraq’s Kurds fear war might make them victims once again of chemical bombardment by Baghdad–most broadly support the US campaign to topple Saddam and are wary of peace moves by some countries they feel might let him off the hook.

Salah condemned Germany’s proposal to try to send more weapons inspectors to Iraq.

"Germany is making a big mistake,” he said. "It is tantamount to siding with dictatorship.”

As well as facing Iraqi government troops and an uncertain future–Salah’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) also has to contend with a band of Islamist rebels inside its territory which it and the United States accuse of links with al Qaeda.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell–in his speech to the UN Security Council last week–attempted to portray Ansar al-Islam as the link between al Qaeda and Baghdad and accused the rebels of trying to manufacture crude chemical weapons.

The PUK say the rugged terrain of Ansar’s mountain hideouts above the northeastern town of Halabja has prevented them from eliminating the group. Salah said the PUK was negotiating with Washington over air support to help them in the task.

He said Saturday’s assassination by Ansar gunmen of a senior PUK leader trying to negotiate with them showed the need for a military strike against them "the sooner–the better.”

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