Erdogan: Turkey Needs U.S. Assurances on Iraq's Future

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Governing party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, poised to become Turkey's prime minister, said his country needs more assurances from Washington on Iraq's future before it agrees to base U.S. troops on its territory.

Erdogan has backed the deployment of American soldiers to Turkey and hinted he would seek a new vote on the issue after parliament refused earlier this month to authorize the basing of 62,000 U.S. troop to open a northern front against Iraq.

Turkey, which fears northern Iraqi Kurds may declare independence in the aftermath of a war, has been pressing for a say in the future of Iraq if Saddam Hussein is ousted. Secession by Iraqi Kurds could inspire Turkey's rebel Kurds, who for 15 years have been fighting for autonomy.

But in an interview after Sunday's sweeping local election victory that won him a seat in parliament, Erdogan appeared in no hurry to resubmit a motion on deployment.

"I cannot give a date. There are also steps that the United States has to take," he said, adding that Turkey, a key U.S. ally and the only NATO member bordering Iraq, still seeks assurances from Washington "on the role" it would play in a post-Saddam Iraq.

"What will Turkey's role be? If Turkey has no role in this, why would Turkey share such a risk? This must be clarified," Erdogan said.

Turkey also wants guaranteed rights for Iraq's Turkmen population, he said. Turkey has close ethnic ties with the Turkmen and is concerned their rights are being overlooked by the more numerous Kurds and Arabs.

A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday that U.S. Ambassador Robert Pearson had addressed Erdogan's concerns in a meeting Sunday. The diplomat confirmed the Turks were seeking further assurances from Washington.

But Erdogan said his questions on Turkey's role and the Turkmen issue were not answered in his meeting with Pearson.

Erdogan also said Turkey would wait for the U.N. Security Council to vote on a U.S.-backed resolution that would give Iraq until March 17 to disarm or face war.

Turks overwhelmingly oppose a war, but snubbing the United States is a risk Turkey cannot afford to take. Ankara would strain ties with Washington and forfeit a $15 billion U.S. aid package offered to offset the effects of war on the frail economy.

Erdogan blamed parliament's rejection of troop deployment on pressure from Washington.

"On the issue of the motion, there was no need to act with such haste," he said. "The right atmosphere, environment needs to be created."

Erdogan leads the Justice and Development Party, the dominant force in parliament which captured 84.7 percent of votes Sunday in a by-election in the southeastern town of Siirt. The party won all three seats contested there, paving the way for Erdogan -- previously banned from running for office -- to enter parliament and become prime minister.

Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said he would resign Tuesday or Wednesday, after Erdogan had been sworn in as a member of parliament.

Erdogan, seen as already running Turkey from behind the scenes, said he planned to make changes to the government -- predicted by analysts to be the sacking of ministers who oppose the U.S. troop deployment.

Erdogan had been barred from running in November national elections because of a conviction for inciting religious hatred over a poem he read at a 1997 rally in Siirt, 60 miles north of the Iraqi border. He spent four months in prison in 1999.

He was able to run in Sunday's by-elections after Justice lawmakers changed the constitution and voting in Siirt was rescheduled after the election board ruled a ballot box there had been tampered with during the national vote.