US officials head to Turkey over genocide dispute

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MOSCOW/ANKARA, Oct 13 (Reuters) Two top US officials flew to Ankara today after a worsening of ties between the NATO allies and fears Turkey will launch a military incursion into northern Iraq to crush Kurdish rebels, diplomats said.

Relations between the two countries have been strained by a US congressional resolution branding as genocide massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915. Some analysts believe the vote could weaken Washington's ''restraining'' influence on Turkey and make an incursion more likely in coming weeks.

US Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried and US Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman will make the trip from Moscow where they have been accompanying Secrretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said a US official who spoke on condition he not be named.

The two are likely to hear sharp criticism from the Turkish government, which this week recalled its ambassador to the United States to Ankara for consultations and said US-Turkish relations were in danger because of the resolution.

The Turkish government, which faces pressure from the public and the army to act, has decided to seek approval from parliament next week for a major operation.

Kurdish separatist rebels said yesterday they were crossing back into Turkey to target politicians and police after the prospect of a cross-border military operation emerged.

The United States relies heavily on Turkish bases to supply its war effort in Iraq, where more than 160,000 US troops are trying to restore stability more than four years after the invasion that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Turkey denies genocide was committed but said many died in inter-ethnic fighting. It remains a sensitive issue, but many Turks are starting to more openly discuss such past taboos.

The US resolution was proposed by a politician with many Armenian-Americans in his district and is the culmination of decades of pressure by a strong Armenian lobby that enjoys wide support in Congress.

CONFERENCE CANCELLED Ankara has long complained that Washington has not done enough on its own or through the Iraqi government to crack down on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels who use the mountains of northern Iraq as a base to attack Turkish targets.

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 deeply troubling to US officials, who fear this could destabilize a relatively peaceful area of Iraq.

The presence of Edelman, who was with Fried in Moscow for a meeting of the US and Russian foreign and defense ministers, may aim to appeal to the Turkish military, a highly influential institution in the mostly Muslim but secular nation. Edelman was U.S. ambassador to Turkey from July 2003 to June 2005.

Amid further signs of repercussions from the resolution, a conference being held by the Turkish-US Business Council in the United States this week was cancelled, along with a visit by Turkish Trade Minister Kursad Tuzmen, CNN Turk television said.

Turkey and the United States are NATO allies but relations have been strained in recent years, particularly after Ankara's refusal to allow the United States to use its territory to stage the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

REUTERS PD RK1630

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