ISTANBUL — Gathered around a negotiating table in the Turkish capital is a coterie of American, Turkish, British, and French officials haggling over the future of the US-led mission called Operation Provide Comfort (OPC).
The stakes are high: Depending on the outcome, the talks could signal a partial retreat from the US effort to nettle the Baghdad regime and protect thousands of Kurds from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
While publicly the US insists it is not aiming to downsize the mission - or its strategy of containing Saddam - officials privately admit to a shift: "OPC will not be as before, since operations on the ground have practically ceased," says a US diplomat here.
At issue in the talks are "technical details," which largely define the mission. For instance, the Turks insist that US and allied planes carry only defensive air-to-air missiles, while the US is pressing for more offensive air-to-ground weapons.
OPC was set up by President Bush in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war, and has squeezed Saddam by enforcing a no-fly zone over northern Iraq.
And from Zahko, in eastern Turkey, US and allied military personnel coordinated humanitarian aid for Kurds in northern Iraq, as well as US-funded efforts to topple the Baghdad regime. This mission reportedly included a significant CIA presence.
But in September, Saddam allied with one Kurdish faction to drive another one from northern Iraq. Saddam's secret police then infiltrated this northern area.
Stung by the moves, the US had to evacuate its own people, as well as some 7,000 others - mostly Kurds - involved in its efforts there.
It was Saddam's infiltration of the region, as well as growing Turkish criticism of the mission that led to the current talks and perhaps the willingness of the US to downsize its operation.
The most significant difference is that the new operation will have no presence on the ground. Instead, American, Turkish, and possibly British and French planes will fly "reconnaissance" missions over northern Iraq from an air base in Incirlik, Turkey.
It is not yet clear how aggressively these reconnaissance flights will continue to enforce the no-fly zone in Iraq above the 36th parallel.
Officially, the Turkish-approved mandate of OPC ends Dec. 31. The deal now being hammered out is supposed to be concluded this week, in time to be approved by parliament.
Turkey originally requested in 1991 the creation of a safe area in Northern Iraq to stop a Kurdish exodus to Turkey. But the Turks eventually turned against it, claiming that the OPC-protected area was turning into a semi-independent Kurdish state.
Turkey spends up to $8 billion per year fighting separatist Kurds, who are agitating for an independent homeland.
Some Turkish politicians have gone as far as saying OPC was supporting the creation of such a state and was also helping the Kurdish separatists, who were based in northern Iraq and using it as a base from which to stage terrorist attacks in Turkey.
Turkey's current prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, had criticized the mission when he was an opposition leader. Shortly after he came to power this summer, Mr. Erbakan had to agree reluctantly to an extension of the OPC mandate, but he promised that this would be the last one.
"He can now say that he has achieved his goal," a Turkish diplomat notes. "OPC will cease to exist."