Relations between longtime allies Turkey and the U.S., severely strained as a result of the Iraq conflict, may be set to improve dramatically. Fierce grassroots opposition to the war led the Turkish Parliament to vote on Mar. 1 to refuse U.S. ground troops free passage through Turkish territory -- a move that complicated Pentagon war plans on the eve of the Iraq operation. Relations flared further in July when U.S. troops detained 11 Turkish special forces in northern Iraq on suspicion of plotting to murder the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk -- a charge Ankara angrily dismissed.
Now, however, both sides have strong strategic motives to repair the relationship. The Bush Administration, eager to shift some of the burden of Iraqi peacekeeping off U.S. and British troops, is keen to have a muscular Turkish military presence in Iraq. For its part, Turkey wants the U.S. to help it disband 5,000 heavily armed Kurdish guerrillas of the anti-Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in northern Iraq. The PKK, a separatist movement dedicated to carving out an independent Kurdish nation in southeastern Turkey and surrounding areas, is blamed for a guerrilla war that has left more than 30,000 Kurds and Turks dead since the 1980s.
Ankara is particularly concerned because the PKK on Sept. 1 lifted a cease-fire it had declared in 2000. That truce followed the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan by Turkish authorities the previous year, an action that led to an easing of security concerns and significant political liberalization. A renewal of PKK attacks, Turkish officials worry, could stop liberalization moves and endanger Turkey's rapprochement with the European Union. That's one reason Ankara is eager to enlist U.S. support in its fight with the PKK.
Publicly, both Washington and Ankara deny any horse-trading. Nevertheless, the request for Turkish troops is likely one reason the White House informed Congress on Sept. 5 that it plans to award Turkey up to $8.5 billion in loan guarantees. An accord on the guarantees, which would be used to pay down Turkish foreign debt, could be signed by the end of September. Meanwhile, on Sept. 12, Turkish and U.S. officials agreed on a joint plan to combat PKK guerrillas. "All terrorists and safe havens have to be eliminated from Iraq. Period," says an Administration official. Details haven't been disclosed. But Soner Cagaptay, coordinator of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Turkish program, says the two sides could work together "to capture the leadership of the PKK," which would "paralyze" the organization. Turkey and the U.S. will also urge guerrillas who aren't part of the PKK leadership to take advantage of a partial amnesty. Soldiers who turn themselves in by February, 2004, earn lenient sentences.
For its part, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist conservative who has been Prime Minister since mid-March, is readying plans to send 10,000 peacekeepers to Iraq. They will probably go to Sunni Arab areas near Baghdad rather than to more sensitive Kurdish zones in the north. Turkey's Parliament is expected to approve the deployment, even though 64% of the public oppose the move. "Right now we have to be [in Iraq] not for war, but for peace," says Reha Denemec, deputy chairman of the ruling Justice & Development Party.
There are other benefits to improved U.S.-Turkey ties. Turkish companies are set to win contracts to help rebuild Iraq's power infrastructure and repair hospitals. And as one of the few real democracies in the Muslim world, Turkey can also serve as a role model. As the U.S. tries to reshape Iraq, that's a good reason to give Turkey a seat at the table.
By John Rossant in Paris, with Louisa Edgerly in Istanbul and Stan Crock in Washington
Edited by Rose Brady