ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey's government voted Monday to ask Parliament to send soldiers to Iraq, a move that could ease the burden of U.S. operations there and help mend frayed relations with Washington.
If Parliament agrees, Turkey (search) would become the first predominantly Muslim nation to contribute troops to the U.S.-led coalition. But many lawmakers reject the idea of sending troops after the ouster of Saddam Hussein -- particularly when they opposed the war that ousted him.
Hoping to win over critics, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (search) was to address members of his party Tuesday ahead of a Parliament vote that could come as soon as later that day.
Government spokesman Cemil Cicek would not disclose how many soldiers the government hoped to send, but officials have said the United States requested about 10,000. The number "will be assessed according to needs," Cicek said.
The U.S. State Department (search) welcomed the decision by the Turkish government.
"Turkey has an important role to play in stabilizing Iraq," said spokesman Richard Boucher. "We continue our discussions with Turkish authorities on the details of possible deployment, if parliament endorses the government's request."
The United States also has been seeking soldiers from India, Pakistan and South Korea to bolster 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Turkey is NATO (search)'s only Muslim member, and Washington is keen to see troops from Muslim countries in an Iraq peacekeeping mission.
Cicek said troops would be deployed for one year, adding: "We hope that they stay for less than one year."
Erdogan has been in favor of contributing troops to help improve ties with the United States, strained since March when the Turkish parliament narrowly turned down a U.S. request to station 60,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
The move would also give Turkey a say in the future of Iraq and a part in the reconstruction of its potentially rich southern neighbor.
"We cannot remain aloof to events" in Iraq, Cicek said.
But Turks, who overwhelmingly opposed the war, doubt whether their soldiers -- consisting mainly of conscripts -- should risk dying for a mission they don't support. A recent opinion poll indicated that 64.4 percent of Turks oppose sending troops.
Turkey's government has also been trying to distance itself from the unpopular occupation, emphasizing any Turkish deployment aims to help rebuild Iraq.
Iraq "must not be under continuous occupation. Those who go there must go there to help bring peace to Iraq," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said. "Turkey will definitely not be part of the occupation."
The Cabinet decision came days after Turkey received assurances from the U.S. State Department's counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black, that the United States would remove the threat posed to Turkey by Turkish Kurdish rebels of the autonomy-seeking Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, based in northern Iraq.
U.S. officials did not rule out the use of military force against the group, designated by Washington as a terrorist organization. The rebels fought a 15-year war for autonomy that left some 37,000 people dead.
Iraqi Kurdish groups and members of Iraq's U.S.-backed Governing Council are reluctant to see troops from Turkey and other neighboring countries in Iraq, worrying that they may have territorial designs and may destabilize the country.
It was not clear when the troops might be dispatched. "Authorization doesn't mean that troops will leave immediately," Cicek said.
Issues that still have to be negotiated include where troops would be stationed. Reports have suggested that they could be deployed in the Sunni Arab areas, west and north of Baghdad.