ANKARA, Turkey, March 22 (UPI) -- The United States opened up a northern front against Iraq in earnest late Friday and early Saturday with aerial attacks on the oil centers of Mosul and Kirkuk even as the task became more complicated by Turkish diplomatic and military moves.
The Turkish Parliament Thrusday granted U.S. overflight rights for bombers heading from Europe to bomb Iraq, after denying requests that would have put 62,000 U.S. troops on the ground and giving air base landing rights inside Turkey.
The Parliament also authorized Turkish troops to move into northern Iraq ostensibly to provide humanitarian assistance to floods of refugees that a bombed and embattled Iraq is expected to disgorge. The United States, fearing clashes between Turkish forces and the Kurdish militia of the Kurdish territories, urgently opposed this.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters Thursday that the United States and Turkey had been in discussions about the humanitarian concerns but said, "our efforts best served right now if there was no movement or Turkish forces into northern Iraq."
As of Friday, according to Turkish press quoting United Nations officials, no refugees had materialized.
Nevertheless, Turkish sources told United Press International that lead elements of a Turkish force, up to 1,500 strong, had entered Iraq. The sources said these were not combat troops, but troops to intended to carry out humanitarian assignments.
The developments left this important battlefield in confusion and raised the possibility of clashes between Turks and Kurds that would distract from efforts to topple Saddam Hussein.
More important from the Kurdish viewpoint, with no major American force on the ground -- and if the Turks move some 70,000 or 80,000 troops into the no-fly zone which some Turkish officials claim will happen -- it would make the Turks the dominant military presence in northern Iraq.
This would bollix the original U.S. plans and could be a difficulty that could well outlast the defeat of Saddam Hussein and make the rebuilding of Iraq all the more difficult, U.S. officials have said.
Originally, the United States asked Turkey to permit the 4th Infantry Division and its artillery and tank elements to transit Turkey and enter Iraq. This would have put some 62,000 American troops on the ground and made it the primary military force in the region. In exchange the United States would have guaranteed Turkey financial aid and prevented the Kurds from attempting to form their own state.
Turkey has traditionally feared a Kurdish state next door that might enliven Turkey's own Kurdish minority and revive an uprising of Kurds in Turkey. Some Turkish officials doubted the U.S. guarantee.
At the same time, the United States was able to guarantee the Kurds that it would prevent difficulties with the Turks, occupy the valuable oil lands on behalf of a liberated Iraq and secure the Kurdish population.
There are U.S. forces in northern Iraq, but still in relatively small numbers. Special Forces have been training and working with the Kurdish militia who guard the border between the government of Iraq and the no-fly zone.
But this is too insignificant a presence to protect some 3 million Kurds. The Kurdish militia, 50,000 strong, is lightly armed and could not prevail against regular Turkish forces with tanks and artillery.
Already this week, the two sides are threatening one another.
Meanwhile, Iranian forces are reported by the two Kurdish parties to be massing on the Iranian border with the no-fly zone.
All three nations that border northern Iraq -- Syria, Iran, and Turkey -- have ethnic and religious interests in those lands. There are Kurds, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Turkmen, with relatives and ethnic brothers in each bordering nation.
But there is also oil. Mosul and Kirkuk are at the center of valuable oil fields and U.S. special forces reportedly moved late Friday to secure those, the BBC reports.
Whether Washington can move enough airborne forces to this area to stabilize it or whether they can deflect forces now heading for Baghdad to go 100 miles north is not known. Already the degree of the problems may have dwarfed the issue of the Iraqi forces dug in on the border.