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Turkey Alarmed at Sudden Kurdish Takeover of Kirkuk

By Philip P. Pan

Turkey reacted with alarm and frustration to the sudden takeover of the Iraqi oil city Kirkuk by Kurdish militias Thursday, but the government urged caution and said it would give the United States time to persuade the Kurds to withdraw before ordering Turkish troops to invade and expel them.

Turkey has repeatedly warned it would respond with force to any move into Kirkuk by the Iraqi Kurds, because it believes they might use the city’s oil wealth to establish an independent Kurdish state. That in turn could revive a violent separatist movement among the large Kurdish population in southeastern Turkey, which borders northern Iraq.

In an interview on national television, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Turkey was prepared to do “whatever is necessary” to protect its security. But he played down the possibility of a Turkish invasion, and said Turkey was counting on U.S. troops to take control of Kirkuk and “remove” the Kurdish fighters. He said Secretary of State Colin Powell promised in a phone call Thursday that the U.S. military would do so.

“We are monitoring the situation closely. [Powell] said they were going to remove all those who entered the city. ... He said they would absolutely not allow a fait accompli,” Gul said. “I hope this mistake will be corrected immediately.”

Gul said Powell also agreed to allow Turkey to send “military observers” to Kirkuk to ensure the Kurds leave, adding that they would be stationed “everywhere.” U.S. officials said the soldiers would accompany U.S. troops, but declined to provide details about the Turkish deployment, which might upset Iraqi Kurds who have objected to any Turkish incursion into their territory.

Gul blamed the takeover of Kirkuk on pesh merga fighters from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two main Kurdish parties in northern Iraq. He said the other party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, contacted Ankara, condemned the capture of Kirkuk and agreed to help the Turkish army drive the other Kurdish group out of the city if necessary.

But late Thursday night, speaking on the CNN-Turk television station, PUK leader Jalal Talabani announced he had ordered his forces to leave Kirkuk by Friday morning.

“They will leave tomorrow, I promise you. ... When the American troops come, the pesh merga will leave,” he said. “From tomorrow morning on, no one will see any pesh merga. ... There is no crisis. The crisis is over. There will never be a crisis between our Turkish brothers and us.”

He said his militias entered the city to prevent looting until American forces could arrive. “You know, the people hated the regime so much. Thousands were celebrating. Therefore, it wasn’t possible for us to control it,” he said. “There will be more discipline and order tomorrow morning.”

Earlier Thursday, Gul sought to reassure the Turkish public, saying only a small number of Kurdish fighters had entered Kirkuk and insisting “there is no need to be worried.” But even as he was speaking, Turkish television showed images of thousands of armed Kurds celebrating in Kirkuk and broadcast reports of Kurds looting the homes and businesses of the city’s Turkmen residents.