ANKARA, TURKEY — The Bush administration, working to persuade the world that military pressure plus UN inspections is the best way to deal with Saddam Hussein, did not expect its old NATO ally, Turkey, to be its toughest sell.
In fact, Turkey is working equally hard to convince its neighbors to resist the apparent US march toward war.
Turkey's two-month-old government is treading two paths: Along one, it shows that it values its relationship with the US by allowing 150 US military officials to inspect Turkish air bases and ports, assessing their potential use. Along the other, Ankara has stepped up its diplomatic drive to avert war.
After visiting several Arab countries and Iran last week, Prime Minister Abdullah Gul plans to host a regional summit here this week to discuss how to avoid a US-led war against Iraq.
"We are telling the Iraqis to cooperate with the UN to the greatest extent," says Dr. Seyfi Tashan, the director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute. "We are telling our neighbors, 'This is the last chance: Get together, and put some pressure on Iraq so that a war may be avoided.' "
Turkey has not yet replied to the US request to allow the use of its territory for a ground invasion of northern Iraq - which the Pentagon sees as the key to a shorter, cleaner war.
Yesterday, Gen. Richard Meyers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with officials here in Turkey. Local media reported that they discussed reducing the American proposal for basing 80,000 troops to 15,000 or 20,000.
Ankara says that it won't decide on the US request until after Jan. 27th, the date when Hans Blix, the chief United Nations weapons inspector, is due to deliver his latest report.
After that, the Turkish parliament would have to approve the stationing of ground troops in Turkey, likely to be a difficult feat in a country where more than 80 percent of those polled oppose a war against neighboring Iraq.
"The site survey has started, and this should not be ignored," says Ahmet Davutoglu, a policy adviser to the prime minister. "There are two channels. One is technical preparation and contingency planning," with the US military, he says. The other is a diplomatic channel, one Ankara thinks Washington should appreciate, given the number of Turks opposed to war. "There is a new government in Turkey and [the US] needs to take that sentiment into consideration."
Washington has begun to let off puffs of steam about Turkey's indecision, suggesting that time is running out for Ankara to decide which road it is on. The US is worried about the problems a delayed operation could entail - March's sandstorms, April's searing heat, and the escalating cost of maintaining so many troops in the region. But Turkey says it's in no rush to use force.
"Our national timetable may not exactly coincide with the US timetable," says Yusuf Buluc, the spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry. "We want to send a message that we have turned every stone to resolve this peacefully."
US officials say that at some point the Bush administration might decide to forge ahead with or without Turkey. "I am not sure that Washington's timetable is subject to Turkey's timetable," says a Western diplomat in Ankara. "President Bush said he would lead a coalition of the willing. He didn't say ... Turkey must be among them."
Part of US strategy is to build a ring of military deployments around Hussein, a psychological battle that some hope could break the Iraqi dictator's resolve before a war starts. Turkey's reluctance to participate in that buildup, in Washington's eyes, weakens the strategy. The best way to resolve this peacefully, says the diplomat, "is to show that the international community is prepared for the consequences of not solving it peacefully."
But Turks worry that a war could further weaken their ailing economy, by raising oil prices and damaging tourism. It could hurt Turkey's image with other Muslim countries and open it to a retaliatory missile attack. And the government, led by a party with Islamist roots, represents many voters who see an attack on a neighboring Islamic country as unacceptable.
But perhaps the most compelling concern cited by Turks is the fear of what will come after Hussein. They worry that toppling him could lead to an attempt by Kurds to seize oil fields and declare an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, and the ascent of a fundamentalist Shiite Islamic state backed by Iran, or just plain chaos. "Turkey has to be more informed about the day after," says a senior Turkish official. "You can build a model," as the policymakers in Washington's have for the future of a democratic Iraq, "but it could be a fragile model that would collapse in a short period of time."
In short, Turks tend to think that Washington's plans for a post-Hussein Iraq are a bit naive. "There is a romanticism about a democratic Iraq," says the Ankara bureau chief of one of Turkey's prominent newspapers. "Just because America says it will go that way, it's not sure it will happen."
For their part, US officials see Turkey's stance as frustratingly complacent. The more readily Turkey cooperates in "regime change," as Washington views it, the more say Turkey can have in ensuring that a post-Hussein Iraq doesn't hurt its national interests.
There are some 75,000 Iraqi troops stationed along the border with the autonomous Kurdish province. The US would like to station its troops in Turkey's southeast, but since this is primarily Kurdish which was an active conflict zone just four years ago, Turks consider it a "sensitive area." Washington cannot see any other area which would be as useful for launching a ground assault and forcing Hussein to divide his resources.
There are also economic considerations. The US is offering an aid package to Turkey to help compensate its potential losses of up to $14 billion, although there is no official offer yet. Turkish officials say they don't want to link economic aid to their decision.
"It's not a horse-trading game," says a foreign ministry official. "Of course the costs are quite high, but that's not part of the equation in making up our minds." But there is an underlying knowledge here that much is at stake.
The US is one of the largest supporters of Turkey's International Monetary Fund loan bailout package, and could scale back military aid or Turkey's favored-trade status if Turkey says no - or gives a de facto veto by sitting on the fence for too long.