US Requests Break in Turkey Troop Talks

ANKARA(Reuters)–Washington has requested a break in talks on sending Turkish troops to join US-led forces in Iraq–Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was quoted on Friday as saying.

NATO-member Turkey has offered to contribute troops to try to help stabilize its war-torn southern neighbor–but talks with US officials have so far yielded no firm details of any deployment since parliament approved the idea early this month.

"The United States has just approached our chiefs of staff saying ‘Give us a little time–let us continue with our work–and then we’ll move forward’,” Turkish NTV television’s Web site quoted him as saying. "Taking a break in talks does not mean the talks are over.” US officials in Ankara declined to comment on the report. Washington–initially keen to call on Turkish troops to support its own harried forces–appears to have back-pedaled following strong opposition from inside and outside Iraq.

Speaking on a visit to Tajikistan–Erdogan said he did not know what the United States would do next.

"If they present a proposal then we’ll examine it and make a decision,” the NTV Web site quoted him as saying.

"We have no great ambition to have our troops in Iraq–but we are always ready as a government to send them.”

Turkish public opinion is firmly against sending troops–but the offer has helped Ankara mend broken fences with Washington after parliament’s surprise vote in March to prevent US troops invading Iraq from south-eastern Turkey.

The rapprochement paved the way for a $8.5 billion US loan offer to help Turkey tackle its huge debt mountain. Both sides deny the cash is tied to Turkish deployment–although Washington says disbursement rests on Turkey’s "cooperation” in Iraq.

Many analysts take that to mean that Turkish troops would not necessarily have to go to Iraq. But Ankara should not take any unilateral action against Turkish Kurdish guerrillas holed up inside northern Iraq–US officials say.

Turkey has said it is not in a hurry to draw down the money–and Erdogan explicitly declined on Friday to rule out action against the Kurdish rebels.

It is clear that Turkish troops will bother certain circles if they travel there… But if Turkish troops don’t go to Iraq that won’t affect our potential to intervene in northern Iraq,” he said.

Turkey already has several thousand soldiers stationed just inside northern Iraq to crack down on Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas after a decades-long conflict in south-eastern Turkey that cost more than 30,000 lives.

Washington has signed a preliminary pact with Ankara on how to deal with the threat posed by the PKK–included on the US list of "terrorist” groups.

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