ANKARA, TURKEY — FIVE years into its mission to protect Iraqi Kurds from the vengeful wrath of Saddam Hussein, the US-led Operation Provide Comfort is wearing out its welcome in Turkey.
Growing hostility from Turkish politicians - who claim that the mission is undermining Turkey's sovereignty and has encouraged Kurdish separatists in the southeast - has put the future of the operation in jeopardy.
The potential crisis worries Western officials, high-ranking Turkish commanders, and Iraq's beleaguered Kurds, who argue that the reason OPC was set up at the end of the Gulf war still remains: Saddam rules in Baghdad, so any withdrawal of allied forces would spark an attack on the Kurds and a repeat of the 1991 exodus.
The political challenge catches Turkey, which has been a strategic American and NATO ally for decades, in a tug-of-war between its own conflicting interests.
But it also raises questions about the utility of the mission for American policymakers in the aftermath of the Gulf war. As OPC marks its fifth anniversary this month, diplomats say that the US has miscalculated, and underestimated Saddam's ability to hold on.
The alliance of American, British, French, and Turkish troops has flown 50,000 sorties above the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, safeguarding 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds. But without Turkey's help - options of basing in Jordan, Cyprus, or on an aircraft carrier are too expensive - there appears to be no viable alternative.
"The end-game is someone puts a bullet in Saddam's head," says one Western diplomat. "If they don't, we're stuck."
Conceived as a temporary solution, the plan for OPC was first drawn up by British Prime Minister John Major on the back of an envelope. After the Gulf war, a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq was quashed by the Iraqi Army, and more than 1.5 million Kurds fled the onslaught over snow and mud-capped mountains into Turkey and Iran.
Overnight, border refugee camps were choked with makeshift graves and bitter, hungry Kurds. OPC made northern Iraq safe for survivors to return, but its longevity is now causing local politicians to reevaluate Turkey's role.
Parliament reluctantly agreed to a three-month extension at the end of March, but influential leaders in Turkey's fragile coalition government insist that it will be the last unless substantial changes are made. US Defense Secretary William Perry has invited his Turkish counterpart, Oltan Sungurlu, to Washington to discuss new terms.
Despite strong support of top Turkish generals, many politicians see it differently, playing to constituents who are wary of Western motives.
They accuse the allies of creating a power vacuum in northern Iraq by permitting rival Iraqi Kurdish factions to fight among themselves. "Terrorists" of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) - the Marxist insurgency party fighting for an independent Kurdistan in southeastern Turkey - have taken advantage of the chaos, they say, by bolstering their strength and using northern Iraq as a springboard for attacks in Turkey.
Critics also contend that Provide Comfort compromises Turkey's sovereignty, turning it into an unwitting accomplice to perennial anti-Iraq American policy.
Bulent Ecevit, leader of the small Democratic Left Party - which plays the critical role of kingmaker in the coalition government - asked parliament: "Do we or do we not commit suicide for the sake of the US and its allies?"
Provide Comfort had reversed the Kurd exodus, he says in an interview, but added: "In our view, the declared objectives of the US have failed.... Saddam has already survived two US presidents."
According to diplomats and sources close to the Turkish military, however, the complaints of politicians are based on common misperceptions. The benefits of Provide Comfort, they say, are obvious:
A year ago, a 35,000-strong Turkish force conducted a six-week cross-border operation to destroy PKK bases up to 25 miles inside Iraq. Diplomats agree that without OPC such an attack never could have been carried out.
The Turkish Army quietly makes "many" smaller cross-border raids against the PKK, the latest this week. OPC allies do little to stop them. "It is naive to believe that if Iraq were in control, the PKK would not be there," says one diplomat.
Sovereignty is not compromised by OPC, because Turkish liaison officers take part in helicopter and other operations. The mission is jointly commanded by an American and a Turk.
America has been a strong ally of Turkey, ensuring that it has the second-largest Army in NATO, after its own. With US loans and expertise, Turkey is modernizing its forces.
One Western diplomat says that US-Turkey ties have "never been better," and adds that, when confronted by critics of OPC, his response was simple: "I ask, 'If Saddam attacks the Kurds and forces them to Turkey, will Turkey go to war with Iraq?' Of course, the answer is no."
The stakes are high, especially for Kurds who see OPC as their only shield against the Iraqi tanks and artillery that are arrayed against them, along the southern border of their "Free Kurdistan."
Kurdish leaders have been branded traitors by Baghdad, and the vengeful example of a traitor's fate was made clear in February when the Kemal brothers - both sons-in-law of Saddam Hussein, who defected and then returned to Baghdad - were killed, despite promises of amnesty.
"Provide Comfort is important for Iraqi Kurds," says Shazad Saib, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two rival factions in northern Iraq. "If it is lifted, it will be a signal to Saddam that he can do anything, and the West will do nothing.
"We can't defend ourselves; we would go to the mountains," he says. "People feel ready to tolerate anything but Saddam. There would be another exodus."