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Associated Press

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) - The United States has asked Turkey to contribute soldiers to help patrol Iraq - a sign of improving relations following tensions over the war to oust Saddam Hussein, the Turkish prime minister said Sunday.

The U.S. ambassador to Turkey also said in a newspaper interview published Sunday that the United States could use military force to oust an estimated 5,000 Turkish Kurdish rebels hiding in northern Iraq.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the Anatolia news agency that Turkish troops, if deployed in Iraq, would help relieve U.S. troops there.

"The United States has requested soldiers from Turkey to send to the region," the agency quoted Erdogan as saying during a speech in the southeastern city of Batman.

Erdogan did not elaborate on the request, which apparently came during Friday talks with two top U.S. generals in the Turkish capital.

The Bush administration has recruited countries to help patrol Iraq. Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, among others, have agreed, but France, Germany and India have declined to participate in the postwar force.

Erdogan did not say whether Turkey agreed to send the soldiers, but officials previously have indicated the government was willing to contribute peacekeepers.

Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. James L. Jones, NATO's supreme allied commander and the head of U.S. forces in Europe, met Turkish generals Friday in a meeting viewed as an effort to restore relations damaged by the Iraq war.

Hurriyet newspaper reported Sunday that the generals discussed the possibility of Turkey dispatching up to 10,000 soldiers to Iraq. The military did not comment on the report.

Relations between the two NATO allies have been strained since March, when Turkey rejected a U.S. request to use its territory to open a northern front in the Iraq invasion.

Relations soured further when the United States detained 11 Turkish special forces in northern Iraq earlier this month to foil an alleged plot to assassinate an Iraqi Kurdish official.

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Erdogan said the U.S. request for soldiers showed improving ties between the nations.

"Turkey is advancing its strategic partnership with the United States," he said.

Turkey's military said Saturday the parties have discussed possible military measures against an estimated 5,000 Turkish Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq. The statement did not elaborate.

Robert Pearson, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, told Hurriyet in an interview published Sunday that the United States would not allow the rebels to hide in northern Iraq and could use force to oust them.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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