The country's interior minister says the government has no reason to end support of a surveillance mission because of a Turkish move into north Iraq. But Turkey's leader says his country eventually will send more troops.
Eye on the screen: Crew members in an AWACS surveillance plane.
When Otto Schily joins his German leaders at Monday's meeting of the country's security cabinet, the interior minister expects to find a familiar subject on the agenda -- a discussion about a possible Turkish incursion into northern Iraq.
The issue forced the security cabinet to convene in Berlin on Saturday. After the discussions, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer issued an ultimatum to the Turkish government, the NATO ally that Germany reluctantly agreed to assist in the Iraq conflict by providing Patriot air-defense missiles and crew members for military surveillance aircraft known as airborne warning and control systems, or AWACS.
"If Turkey becomes involved in the war, then it’s a new situation for us, and it would cause the removal of German servicemembers from the AWACS aircraft," Fischer said.
The cabinet issued the warning after its members discussed media reports that began to circulate early Saturday. According to these reports, Turkey sent more than 1,500 troops into northern Iraq as part of plans to control any refugee exodus from the U.S.-led war against Baghdad and to prevent any "terrorist activity" by the Kurdish population in the region.
Turkish military denies any change
The reports prompted the Turkish military to issue a denial later in the day. "The reports in question are not true. They do not reflect reality," a military statement said.
A day later, Schily said the German government had not yet seen any reason to carry out its threat. "Our intelligence shows that Turkey has not created a situation that was different from the one in the past," the interior minister said on the public television network ARD.
Small numbers of Turkish troops have been in northern Iraq since the 1990s, operating against rebel Turkish Kurds who have retreated there. Turkey is concerned that a Kurdish state could emerge after the war against Iraq and would reignite the armed Kurdish separatism in southeastern Turkey that cost 30,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s. Iraqi Kurdish groups fear Turkey might move to crush the autonomy they have enjoyed since Baghdad lost control of the area after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
German intelligence shows that the Turkish military increased its forces in the region this year from about 1,500 to 4,000 as the possibility of a U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein grew. The troops were assigned to secure the 200-mile border with Iraq and prepare five refugees camps. German intelligence officials said the Turkish military could have been rotating personnel assigned to the force in northern Iraq. But they said they had seen no sign that the Turkish government was creating a force that could advance into northern Iraq.
Troop movement still planned
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey still wants to send forces to the region and has laid the political groundwork for the mission, the country's new prime minister, Racep Tayyip Erdogan, told the U.S. magazine Newsweek. Erdogan said the country discussed its interest during talks it held with the United States over the granting of overflight rights for American planes attacking Iraq. Turkey granted those rights on Friday, and Erdogan indicated in the interview that the troop deployment would be forthcoming as a form of payback.
"When we were asked for overflight rights, we said we would like to see Turkish troops in northern Iraq, and the U.S. approved that. ... Our foreign minister made this agreement during a discussion with (U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell," Erdogan told the magazine.
Turkey will be allowed to send those troops about 12 miles inside northern Iraq in order to prevent problems among Kurdish groups there, he said.
In a television address on Sunday, Erdogan defended his plans to send troops into the area. "The presence of Turkish soldiers in the region will bring an element of security and stability to Tukey and the region," he said.
The issue of NATO assistance to Turkey triggered one of the worst crises in the alliance's 53-year history. Germany, France and Belgium, opponents of a possible U.S. war against Iraq at the time, vetoed the America request to assist Turkey. All three maintained that such preparations would indicate that a war against Iraq was inevitable. The alliance's leadership worked out a compromise after a six days of talks, and NATO eventually sent four of the AWACS planes to Turkey to watch over the country's airspace. Germany is providing one-third of the air crews, about 20 servicemembers. If the country pulled out those crew members, the alliance could not continue the mission.
Decision fuels criticism
The threat issued on Saturday by the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder triggered criticism from the parliamentary opposition and from Turkey's foreign minister, Abdullah Gül.
"You cannot just single-handedly pull German servicemembers from a NATO mission without damaging the alliance," said Friedbert Pflüger of the Christian Democratic Union.
But Volker Beck, a member of the government's junior coalition partner, said on Sunday that the government had consulted with NATO before making the decision. Beck, a member of the Greens, also said the decision reflected the government's anti-war stance.
In Ankara, Gül accused Germany of taking contradictory positions, expressing readiness to stop support of Turkey while allowing the United States to use its bases in Germany for the war on Iraq. "Are American planes taking off from German bases?" Gül was quoted by the Turkish newspaper Milliyet as saying over the weekend. "Isn't Germany actually taking part in it?"