MOSCOW/ANKARA, (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Saturday she had urged Turkey to refrain from any major military operation in northern Iraq as tensions grew between the two NATO allies. “I urged restraint,” Rice, on a visit to Moscow, told reporters of her telephone conversations on Friday with Turkey’s president, prime minister and foreign minister.
Two senior U.S. officials flew to Turkey on Saturday to try to defuse strains after a U.S. Congressional resolution branded as genocide massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915.
Some analysts believe the vote could weaken Washington’s “restraining” influence on Turkey and increase the likelihood of a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq to crush Kurdish rebels.
Rice said she told the Turkish officials “that we all have an interest in a stable Iraq and that anything that is destabilising is going to be to the detriment of both of our interests.”
Rice acknowledged strains following the U.S. Congressional committee vote on the Armenian massacres. The Bush administration would strive to stop it being approved by the full U.S. Congress, she said. “It is a tough time,” she told reporters. “It’s not an easy time for the relationship and it was perfectly predictable.”
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried and U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman flew to Ankara from Moscow where they had been accompanying Rice.
CNN Turk television reported Edelman as saying on his arrival they were visiting Turkey to express regret over the resolution.
The two are likely to hear sharp criticism from the Turkish government, which this week recalled its ambassador to the United States for consultations and said relations were in danger. They are also likely to bring up the issue of Iraq as the Turkish government is to seek approval from parliament next week for a major operation against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants based in the mountains of northern Iraq.
“They (U.S. officials) are sure to raise the northern Iraq issue, but from our perspective the top issue is the Armenian resolution,” a Turkish diplomat told Reuters.
The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee approved on Wednesday a resolution labelling the 1915 killings genocide. Turkey denies genocide but says many died in inter-ethnic fighting.
Turkish officials say foreign ministry and military officials met after the resolution was approved to discuss potential measures against the United States.
In initial repercussions, a U.S. visit by Trade Minister Kursad Tuzmen was cancelled, along with a conference being held by the Turkish-U.S. Business Council in the United States.
Other potential moves may include blocking U.S. access to Incirlik air base, cancelling procurement contracts, downscaling bilateral visits, denying airspace to U.S. aircraft, and halting joint military exercises, analysts and diplomats say.
The United States relies heavily on Turkish bases to supply its war effort in Iraq, where more than 160,000 U.S. troops are trying to restore stability more than four years after the invasion that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Ankara has long complained Washington has not done enough on its own or through the Iraqi government to crack down on PKK rebels who use northern Iraq as a base to attack Turkey.
The PKK said on Friday its guerrillas were crossing back into Turkey to target politicians and police after the prospect of a cross-border military operation emerged.
Turkey blames the PKK for the deaths of more than 30,000 people since the group launched its armed struggle for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey in 1984.
The possibility of a major Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq is troubling to U.S. officials, who fear this could destabilise a relatively peaceful area of Iraq.