Nervous Nellie Turkey

The US certainly has its share of reluctant key allies in a possible Iraq war: France, Germany, and now faithful Britain is urging Washington - in the absence of hard evidence of banned weapons in Iraq - to let the inspections process play itself out, even if that means delaying war.

Except for Britain, no hesitant ally means more to a US-led war effort than NATO member Turkey. As Iraq's northern neighbor, Turkey played a major role as a staging ground in the 1991 Gulf War. The US has sought Ankara's permission to deploy as many as 80,000 troops in Turkey this time, with the aim of carrying out a two-front, north-south attack on Iraq.

Pressured by a Muslim population in which more than 80 percent opposes a war, the new government in Ankara has yet to grant this permission. If Turkey refuses, military analysts say a war would be longer and more difficult. That's a nice way of saying more casualties.

With thousands of US combat troops shipping out to the Middle East, it might seem time is of the essence here. It is. But so is patience.

For the past year, Turkey's front burners have been occupied with issues vital to its future: the worst economy since World War II, a table-turning election, and a full-tilt effort for membership in the European Union. Only in the last month have Turkish media begun to focus attention on their country's role in an Iraq conflict.

That's not a very long time for the government to get out a message that can begin to scale the mountain of anti-war public opinion, something Washington has been urging.

The message doesn't have to be an impossible balancing act. Government officials can legitimately make every effort to avoid war, as the Turkish prime minister is doing this week in visits to Saudi Arabia and Iran. Who's to say these efforts won't pay off?

But it is also in Turkey's interest to prepare for the distinct possibility of war. The question is: Does it want to have a hand in shaping a war's outcome, or instead beg off - jeopardizing US economic assistance and further integration with the West, as well as its direct interests in the Iraqi oil fields and the impact of a war on the Kurdish minority?

With last week's belated decision to allow the US to inspect Turkish ports and military bases to gear up for possible invasion, Ankara has taken a right step. But Washington also needs to let nervous Nellies like Turkey do what they need to do to present the most united front possible. If that means delay, so be it. The most successful diplomatic - or military - pressure is getting as many allies as possible to bear down on Iraq.

Washington can use many levers on nations such as Turkey to bring them into a war coalition. But such diplomacy slips over a line when it forces nations to do what they're not prepared to do.

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