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Turkish army flexes muscles on Iraq, Cyprus
( 2004-01-17 08:58) (Agencies)

Turkey's powerful military flexed its muscles on Friday, saying an ethnic-based federation in neighboring Iraq would be "difficult and bloody" and slamming U.S. forces there for failing to clamp down on Kurdish rebels.

At a rare news conference, a top general also said the military backed a peace deal for Cyprus before the split island joins the European Union in May, but warned this would be hard.

"If there is a federal structure in Iraq on an ethnic basis, the future will be very difficult and bloody," General Ilker Basbug, the number two at the General Staff, told reporters, adding that a federation based on geography would be better.

Basbug was speaking 10 days before Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan goes to Washington for talks with U.S. President Bush that are expected to focus on Iraq, Cyprus and international security.

Ankara has patched up relations with the United States since its parliament voted against letting U.S. forces attack Iraq from Turkish soil last year, and U.S. troops are currently being rotated in and out of Iraq through a base in Turkey.

Democratic reforms have started to curb the power of the Turkish military, which has staged three coups and effectively forced an elected government from office as recently as 1997.

But tensions between the fiercely secular generals and Erdogan's government, which has its roots in political Islam, are often bubbling below the surface.

Iraqi Kurds won autonomy in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war. Now Kurdish leaders want to cement that autonomy under Iraq's new political system, while Arab and Turkmen residents bitterly oppose any such plan.

NATO-member Turkey fears Kurdish autonomy in Iraq could stir up similar aspirations among its own Kurdish minority, and has warned it would intervene if Iraqi Kurds declared independence.

The United States has said the decision on a new political framework for the war-torn country rests with the Iraqis. On Friday, top U.S. officials huddled with President Bush to hammer out how they might shape Iraq's emerging political map, including what degree of autonomy Kurds win.


Basbug also said the United States should take military action against Turkish Kurd rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) based in the mountains of northern Iraq who have been waging a separatist war in southeast Turkey since 1984.

The PKK is on Washington's list of terrorist organizations and uses Iraq as a base for cross-border attacks into Turkey.

The conflict has killed more than 30,000 people in the past two decades, although violence has ebbed since the 1999 arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

"The U.S.'s fight against the PKK is not meeting our expectations in the current situation," Busbag said. "Our view is that the United States must start some military actions against the terror group within a short space of time."

The United States rejected the criticism.

"We continue to work against the PKK to make sure they can't find any haven in northern Iraq. There is no place for the PKK in Iraq," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Basbug was talking after Turkish markets had closed. But the lira currency weakened in international trade following the general's unusually overt criticism of Washington.

"The Turkish military seem to be setting out their stall ahead of the ... meeting between Erdogan and Bush," Bear Stearns analyst Tim Ash said in a research note, adding that the comments would ruffle feathers at the Pentagon.

Basbug said the military was working closely with the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Cyprus, where Turkey keeps at least 30,000 troops to back the self-declared Turkish Cypriot state.

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