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Turkish troops cross Iraqi border

Turkish troops have been building up near the border for several days.
Turkish troops have been building up near the border for several days.

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ANKARA, Turkey (CNN) -- Turkey has sent more than 1,000 troops into the Kurdish-majority area of northern Iraq despite strong opposition from the United States.

The troops began moving across the border early Saturday morning, CNN Turk Military Correspondent Kemal Yurteri reported.

Washington is opposed to Turkish forces moving into the area for fear there will be clashes between Turkish and Kurdish troops.

A senior State Department official had earlier told CNN that the question of "where, how many and when (the troops) cross" was still under negotiation.

However, Turkish officials say they want to move troops into northern Iraq to create a buffer zone to prevent refugees from coming into Turkey and to provide humanitarian assistance.

CNN Correspondent Harris Whitbeck, reporting from the Turkish town of Cizre, near the border, said there had been a build-up of Turkish troops for several days.

The Turkish military command has said it will issue a statement on the incursion later.

The troop deployment came shortly after Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said his country agreed to open two air corridors for U.S. planes to use for air attacks in Iraq.

A previous agreement allowing use of the airspace was held up by Turkey because of the dispute with the United States about sending Turkish troops into northern Iraq.

Talks with the United States to resolve the movement of Turkish troops continued, and the issue was likely to be resolved soon, Gonul said late Friday. At that time, he said no Turkish troops had moved into Iraq.

Just a half hour after the agreement to open the air corridors kicked in, however, troops were reported crossing into northern Iraq from Cukurca and more were likely to follow.

Warplanes turn back

About 3,000 Turkish troops are already in the region, with more expected to come. According to Turkish officials, however, they are not combat troops and are there to form a buffer. They will not fire a shot, officials said.

At a Pentagon news briefing Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged the Turks "have had some forces in northern Iraq for some time, not associated with what's going on right now. But in terms of any large numbers, they are not."

Gonul said under a memorandum of understanding, the United States had been granted two air corridors to the Iraqi border -- one running from Istanbul and another along the southern edge of Turkey.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to get confirmation the air corridors were open, he said. Later, the U.S. State Department announced the agreement would go into effect at midnight Friday, Turkish time.

That came after U.S. warplanes took off from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea, planning to fly over Turkey, a senior Pentagon official said.

At the last minute before they entered the corridor, Turkish officials notified the United States they were not sure that final approval had been granted. As a result the planes were forced to turn back.

Later, the planes headed south to the Sinai Peninsula, curved south of Israel and flew over either Jordan or Saudi Arabia to enter Iraq, the senior Pentagon official said.

As negotiations over the troop movement continued, Gul later told reporters there were two main reasons Turkey wants to have troops in northern Iraq: First, to protect Turkey from potential terrorists and second, to stop an influx of refugees.

He made no mention of what has been considered another Turkish concern: that if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is toppled, Kurds in northern Iraq would gain control of Iraqi oil fields and use them as leverage to create an independent Kurdish territory that might stretch into Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey.

Kurds, on the other hand, worry about the presence of Turkish troops in their region of Iraq.

The United States has been trying to strike a balance between the two sides.

Concerns remain despite an agreement Wednesday in which the leaders of Iraqi minority groups -- the Kurds and the Turkmen -- promised to maintain the status quo of the region during and after the war in Iraq.

CNN correspondents Kemal Yurteri, Jane Arraf, Andrea Koppel and Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.


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