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Turkey Merits US Backing As It Hunts Terrorists

TURKEY'S 35,000-troop incursion into northern Iraq is part of an ongoing battle against terrorism. It deserves support from the United States and other Western nations.

Unlike its European allies, the US has shown some sympathy for the Turkish action against the Syrian-supported Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Secretary of State Warren Christopher has called Turkey's military moves ''an act of self-defense.'' Nonetheless, Washington has called for ''prompt withdrawal.'' Turkey's critics in Congress demand a tougher stance against Ankara. In fact, Washington needs to show leniency and understanding and persuade its allies to do likewise.

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Both because of Western criticism and for its own reasons, Turkey appears to be scaling down the objectives of its costly operation and paving the way for withdrawal. Former Turkish military chief Necip Torumtay, among others, has warned that an extended occupation could be counterproductive, since it could lead to clashes between Turkish forces and the Iraqi Kurds. Indeed, it is a good bet that Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller will give President Clinton at least a rough timetable for withdrawal when the two leaders meet tomorrow at the White House.

Two points should guide Western policy. First, the West's interests lie with Turkey. Ankara has been a loyal NATO ally, a strategic partner in the Gulf war, and the host of Operation Provide Comfort (OPC), whose planes protect Iraqi Kurds from Saddam Hussein. It is a source of stability in the Middle East, an important future partner in our ties with resource-rich Central Asia, and a key bulwark against a resurgence of Russian imperialism. Most important, Turkey has long been the most democratic government in the Islamic world. Its democratic efforts, however imperfect, deserve to be rewarded and nurtured.

By contrast, the terrorist PKK is trained in Lebanon's Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley and supported by three sponsors of terrorism: Iran, Iraq, and particularly Syria. The PKK targets not only the Turkish military but also state officials and others -- including teachers, whom it accuses of purveying state propaganda -- and their families. Its persistent attacks on Turkish institutions throughout Europe led both France and Germany to ban the organization in 1993.

Second, Turkey's actions to preserve its territorial integrity and prevent terrorist infiltration across its borders are justified. There is little doubt the US would respond powerfully were we victimized by cross-border terrorism that a neighboring state would not or could not control. Indeed, as our 1986 raid on Libya showed, we are willing to go well beyond our borders to try to inflict damage on terrorists.

Turkish withdrawal, followed by a rapid return of the PKK to northern Iraq, will accomplish nothing and could lead to a repetition of the Turkish action. Hence, the US and Western Europe should be flexible about Turkey's timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and about the post-withdrawal regime Ankara hopes to establish to limit PKK activity in the area. Iraqi Kurdish militias should be encouraged to live up to a three-year-old commitment to prevent cross-border infiltration. If they are unable fully to do so, the West should not criticize reasonable Turkish security adjustments, such as a decision to keep troops at critical PKK infiltration routes.

Nevertheless, Western support for Turkey should be predicated on two principles: respect for civilian life and human rights, and continuation of OPC and related humanitarian operations. To the surprise of many, Turkey thus far appears to be making serious good-faith efforts in both areas.

Civilian casualty figures remain relatively low for an operation of this size. (Some lapses are inevitable -- witness civilian casualties during limited US operations in Grenada and Panama). And US officials in the field report that OPC planes have been flying regularly, and that private humanitarian groups in northern Iraq have been able to carry out their work effectively.

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Of course, if Turkey wants the fullest sympathy from its friends, it must undertake further reforms -- particularly those that assure the freedom of cultural and political expression for all citizens, including Kurds -- even while pursuing the PKK.

Carrying out reform while fighting terrorists is treacherous. Terrorists can mistake reform for weakness. If Turkey is to follow through with its reforms, it should know that its friends fully support its right to oppose terror and protect its borders.

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