Turkey cracks door on US troop presence
The prime minister will ask Parliament this week to begin debating war plans.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul plans to ask parliament this week to begin debating military plans for a war with Iraq. Mr. Gul's announcement yesterday came three days after Turkey's powerful military establishment publicly signaled for the first time its willingness to allow thousands of US troops to be based here.
But even as Turkey's military cracks open the door for Washington, the Turkish government remains deeply wary of letting the US military march through. Turkish officials - keen to find ways to avoid a war against Iraq - are fearful that US intentions for "regime change" pose far greater threats to Turkish interests than an armed Saddam Hussein.
On Sunday, the Turkish military continued moving troops to the border with Iraq. The deployments are officially aimed at preparing for a flood of refugees. But Turkish officials and analysts say that the primary concern is the birth of an independent Kurdistan as a byproduct of war.
"The Turks are very concerned about Kirkuk and don't want Kurds to have it," says Omer Taspinar, a Turkish visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, referring to the oil-rich city in northern Iraq. "They don't trust American guarantees. What if there is a civil war" and Kurds manage to carve out their own state as a result?
Turkey's National Security Council, made up of top civilian and military leaders, said after a meeting late Friday that the Turkish parliament should begin the process of introducing legislation that would allow foreign troops to be based on Turkish soil. But the long-awaited statement was indirect, calling on the government to take "necessary steps" for "military preparedness" without explicitly calling for the Turkish legislature to allow the US to use Turkey's bases for an attack on Iraq.
The council also demanded that the action be backed by "international legitimacy," which some Turkish officials interpret to mean waiting for another United Nations resolution.
Nor did the Turkish council specify how quickly the ruling AK Party should act, a critical factor at a time when President Bush and other US officials have been warning that "time is running out" to solve the Iraq crisis peacefully. If a parliamentary vote is not called this week, it will be put off for at least another nine days as the country takes off for the Muslim bayram holiday. Mr. Gul yesterday did not say when exactly Turkey's parliament would vote on US troop deployment.
The Pentagon initially asked to base or send through 80,000 US troops, but Turks recoiled at that number, saying it would rouse public ire; the numbers have now been floating between 15,000 and 20,0000.
US officials say that the number of troops is not nearly as critical as the ability to open a northern front against Iraq's Army. But as far as Turks are concerned, the number is key - in part because Turkey wants to keep a lid on Kurdish nationalism and does not trust US promises to do so.
"What's the difference between a small yes and a big yes?" poses Mr. Taspinar. "If there will be 80,000 troops, that means the US will take care of northern Iraq. If it's a smaller number, it will open the door for the Turkish Army to play a more active role, and I think they want that role, because they are not sure in the future that the US will not give Kirkuk over to the Kurds."
US officials seem to be growing weary of trying to turn around Turkey's outlook. Defense department officials argue that the best way for Turkey to ensure that it has a role to play in the future of Iraq is to work alongside the US military. Whether Turkey allows a small or large troop presence, these officials argue, the impact on domestic and regional opinion will be the same. Moreover, a larger presence would give Iraqi forces the sense that they're up against an enormous force rather than a smaller one without international backing.
As the Pentagon waits for its answer, predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey is rumbling again after some three years of relative calm. Several incidents of fighting between the Turkish military and guerrillas in the banned PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, have been reported in the past two weeks.
Last week, a Turkish newspaper ran a photograph that claimed to show an American official meeting with a member of the PKK, listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department.
The US Embassy strongly denied any meeting was held. Analysts here say that, nonetheless, the story for at least some Turks raised doubt over whether to trust US intentions in Iraq.