ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey plans to send its forces up to 12 miles into northern Iraq to deal with any flood of refugees, but will only move if a crisis develops, the Turkish foreign minister said Tuesday.
The statement by Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, follows intense U.S. pressure on Turkey not to send its forces unilaterally into northern Iraq.
Washington fears that Turkish forces could end up clashing with local Iraqi Kurdish fighters or engaging in friendly-fire accidents with U.S. forces.
Gul said Turkey was determined to act to avoid a flood of refugees. Following the 1991 Gulf War, hundreds of thousands of starving, freezing Iraqi Kurds fled Saddam Hussein's forces for the Turkish border, creating a humanitarian disaster for Turkey.
Gul said Turkey was looking to create a 12-mile zone on the border.
"We want to keep all of the refugees there. This is very clear," he said in an interview in his office.
"This is not a populated area and this area ... is for security reasons," Gul said. "If the need is there, this is our plan.".
When asked how many soldiers Turkey would send in, Gul said: "It depends on the need."
Gul said Turkish and U.S. officials were discussing the Turkish plans.
U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was in Ankara on Tuesday for talks with Turkish officials. A senior U.S. official said the goal of Khalilzad's talks is to keep Turkish troops out of northern Iraq. The official said Washington is offering to work to contain any refugee flow in order to keep Turkish forces out of the region.
Khalilzad pledged to continue the discussions.
"These are difficult and complicated issues," he said.
In addition to a flow of refugees, Turkey also fears that the fall of Saddam Hussein could lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq. That could boost the aspirations of Turkey's Kurdish rebels, who fought a 15-year war for autonomy in southeastern Turkey.