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Turkey to send peacekeepers to Lebanon

Associated Press

September 6, 2006

Turkish leaders prepared to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Wednesday after parliament authorized the participation of Turkish soldiers in an expanded U.N. peace mission in Lebanon.

The decision makes Turkey the first Muslim country with diplomatic ties with Israel to send troops to Lebanon and is likely to enhance the Muslim presence in the task force. Turkey's military, the second largest in NATO in terms of numbers, has wide experience in peacekeeping missions from Kosovo to Afghanistan.

The decision was an important boost to efforts to deploy an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force amid hopes that strong Muslim participation would avoid any impression that the force is primarily a Christian entity.

On Tuesday, parliament voted 340-192 in favor of sending troops to Lebanon, with one lawmaker abstaining, after a lengthy debate on the floor. Earlier, thousands protested outside against deployment because of fears the Turkish troops could face hostile fire or clashes with fellow Muslims supporting the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the Turkish force will focus on reconstruction in Lebanon and that Turkish troops would be withdrawn if asked to disarm Hezbollah. The resolution passed by the parliament stated that Turkish soldiers will not be "used in disarming local armed elements (Hezbollah) in the region.

Still, Turks outraged by Israeli strikes on Lebanon, are wary of the mission, which they see as a force deployed to protect Israel's interests and which may end up fighting fellow Muslims.

Columnist Cuneyt Ulsever of the leading Hurriyet newspaper warned that the deployment could possibly lead to tensions between Erdogan's Islamic-rooted party and its supporters.

"For the first time, the ruling party has taken such a strong decision that is opposed by its own grass roots," Ulsever wrote. "We will live and see how the ruling party will soften the voice (of criticism) that will rise from thousands of mosques."

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said the composition and size of the Turkish force and the timing of the deployment will depend on consultations with the United Nations. However, Gul has said the number of Turkish soldiers is likely not to exceed 1,000.

Annan was scheduled to meet with Erdogan, Gul and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer on Wednesday to discuss details of Turkey's contribution to the force.

A U.N. force is preparing to expand from 2,000 to 15,000 troops and deploy throughout the south with an equal number of Lebanese soldiers as Israeli forces withdraw as part of a shaky cease-fire that took effect on Aug. 14.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel was especially interested in having Turkey in the force because it is a largely Muslim country and a regional power.

Qatar pledged 200 to 300 troops on Monday, while Indonesia said Saturday it will send up to 1,000 troops to southern Lebanon by the month's end, after Israel dropped objections to its participation in the U.N. peacekeeping force. But neither of those countries has diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called Turkey's participation a moral duty that would contribute to regional stability and raise Turkey's profile on the international stage.

Turkey is expected to participate with a naval task force to patrol the eastern Mediterranean and prevent arms smuggling, as well as peacekeepers and officers to train Lebanese army troops. Turkey would also open some of its airports and Mediterranean ports for the use of other national contingents in the U.N. force.

Turkey's contribution is also likely to boost Ankara's efforts to join the European Union. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso last week highlighted Turkey's "strategic role" in the U.N. force, praising the "significant reforms" Ankara has made on democracy and the economy.

Turkish military will "carefully and successfully carry out this mission," Gul said. "Our duty is to fully support this mission."

Associated Press Writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.

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