ISTANBUL — UNDER economic and political pressure, the Turkish government is seeking to normalize ties with Iraq without breaking the United Nations-imposed sanctions.
The administration of Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, responding to lobbying from businessmen and politicians, has taken steps to reopen an oil pipeline and border crossings and establish a basis for future economic cooperation with Saddam Hussein's government.
According to government officials, Turkey is suffering no less than Jordan from the UN sanctions imposed following the Gulf war. They estimate the losses suffered in Turkish-Iraqi trade during the last four years at about $20 billion. Some Western experts dispute this figure, but admit that the Turkish economy has suffered considerably.
Iraq was Turkey's third-largest trading partner before the war. Many Turkish firms were engaged in giant construction projects in Iraq, and Turkey collected $250 million in transit fees from the oil pipeline from Kirkuk in Iraq to Turkey's Yumurtalik terminal on the Mediterranean Sea.
The new Turkish policy involves a more independent line in reestablishing ties with Iraq and joint efforts with Jordan on sanctions. In an Aug. 28 visit to Amman, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel issued a joint appeal with King Hussein for lifting the economic sanctions and announced that both governments had agreed to deploy diplomatic efforts to end the embargo.
Western diplomats are somewhat skeptical of the new policy. ''The signs are that Turkey is gradually alienating herself from the West on Iraqi policy,'' says one Western diplomat. ''The recent call for the end of the embargo shows how differently the Turks see things. They take it that Saddam [Hussein] is here to stay, and they want to reestablish relations with his regime. All this is contrary to United States policy and also indicates a shift in Turkey's past attitude, which went along with the policy o f the West.''
Meanwhile, Turkey reopened the Habur border crossing with Iraq on Aug. 28. Hundreds of Turkish trucks are now using this gateway to carry food and medicine to Iraq - described as humanitarian aid under the UN sanctions. The trucks are returning to Turkey with up to two tons of oil per truck. According to a government announcement, this oil is to be used for operating the trucks only. But some of the oil is reportedly being diverted to the market. Officials say this amount is insignificant and does not prov oke objections from the UN.
And last week, a delegation of 60 leading Turkish businessmen, headed by the president of the Turkish Union of Chambers of Commerce, Yalim Erez - a close associate of Prime Minister Ciller - visited Baghdad. Mr. Erez met with Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan and expressed Ciller's desire for a normalization of relations between the two countries.
The businessmen met with Iraqi officials to discuss future prospects for economic cooperation once UN sanctions are lifted - particularly imports of petroleum goods from Iraq in return for Turkish goods and services Iraq has relied on in the past - and a formal protocol to this effect was signed.
Turkey is also engaged in plans to reactivate a 616-mile-long oil pipeline between Turkey and Iraq, which officials say is showing signs of corrosion. The first flushing would involve 12 million barrels of oil trapped in the pipeline since August 1990, when Turkey stopped the flow of Iraqi oil. An agreement seems to have been reached that would allow the crude to be flushed to be used by Turkey in exchange for humanitarian aid, to be provided under UN supervision. The Turks expect a final agreement on this
matter this month.
The news media have questioned why Turkey should be so loyal to the West on the sanctions issue and not take more courageous action to restore trade with Iraq.
This view has been strongly advocated by leftist as well as pro-Islamic opposition leaders. ''Turkey should take her own initiative and not wait for US permission to normalize relations with her neighbor [Iraq],'' says Bulent Ecevit, leader of the Democratic Left Party and former prime minister.
Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the pro-Islamic fundamentalist Welfare Party, has been attacking the Ciller administration for yielding to Western pressure and not showing the courage needed to restore relations with Iraq.
But President Demirel says, ''We want to normalize relations with Iraq, but we cannot act unilaterally.''
While some Western diplomats are concerned the new, cautious steps mark a policy change, Turkish officials are at pains to assure them this is not the case, and particularly that Turkey does not intend to defy the UN rules on sanctions.
''There is no question of an alienation of Turkey's policy from that of the West,'' says Ozdem Sanberk, undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry, who has been involved in Iraqi diplomacy. ''All the moves that we make are conducted in close consultations with our Western allies. Turkey is acting as a catalyst, and is in a unique position to play such a regional role.''