Turkey seeks assurances from US

Ankara wants $30 billion from Washington to cover potential damages from an attack by Iraq.

Turkey has finally jumped over a major hurdle to ensure its defense by NATO should it be dragged into a war against neighboring Iraq. But the country says there are still walls to scale before it can allow thousands of US troops to be based and shuttled through here in a campaign against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

A key parliamentary vote to allow foreign troops here was due to take place Tuesday but is now being postponed, much to Washington's chagrin, because Turkish officials say they have not yet received the US assurances they require. Analysts and officials familiar with the wrangling between Washington and Ankara say the dispute is bogged down in Turkey's dissatisfaction with the role the US expects it to play in a would-be war, and the concern that Turkey will not be adequately compensated for its losses.

Capping a week of European divisiveness not seen since World War II and a weekend of massive antiwar protests in cities across the globe, Turkey Monday decided it could afford a few more days of indecision.

"There are difficulties concerning the timing. We have explained that we may not be able to bring the issue to parliament in a short period of time. It will be very difficult to persuade the [representatives] to vote for American troops to be located here and to use Turkish bases,'' says Prime Minister Abdullah Gul.

Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis told reporters upon return to Turkey from a weekend of intense negotiations in Washington that while the US had pressed for the passage of legislation by Feb. 18, the government would not be able to get the motion through parliament so quickly. In a joint press conference, Economy Minister Ali Babacan said that Turkish and US officials failed to reach an agreement on an aid package to ease the toll a war could take.

"There is no agreement yet on the size of the package," Mr. Babacan said. "Discussions on a figure will continue."

The US has offered Turkey an aid package that includes close to $6 billion in grants and up to $20 billion in loan guarantees, which would fall under the terms of Turkey's program with the International Monetary Fund. Though that is higher than the initial offer of $14 billion, it still falls short of what was requested by Turkey, which estimates it lost $30 billion in the last war with Iraq.

"The Turkish side feels the compensation package that has been designed by the US falls short of satisfying Turkish expectations," says Sedat Ergin, the Ankara bureau chief of the Hurriyet newspaper. "And the American side is very much frustrated because the planning effort has been jeopardized by the Turkish reluctance, but the Turks are waiting for a quid pro quo."

Late Sunday night, members of NATO voted to send Turkey military hardware the US requested to bolster Turkish defenses in the event that Iraq, under attack by US-led forces, strikes back at Turkey. But European opposition to the Bush administration's plans is far from resolved: France does not sit on the Defense Planning Council that voted to allow Turkey to receive backup defenses in the form of AWACS air reconnaissance planes, Patriot missiles, and chemical and biological warfare defense teams. But France, as well as Germany, Russia, and China, remains opposed to the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein, arguing for weapons inspectors to continue their work.

Despite the NATO decision, Europe remains deeply divided over Washington's plans to deal with Iraq. And Turkey, keen to join the European Union, is trying to satisfy both it and the US. The parliamentary vote scheduled to be held Tuesday was postponed in part because Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul was to travel to Brussels Monday to attend an emergency European Union summit called to find a common position on Iraq and close rifts over the use of NATO.

The focus of the impasse between Turkey and the US is Ankara's demand for written assurances of Washington's commitments, encompassing economic aid, military arrangements, and a say in the future of Iraq, with which Turkey shares a 218-mile border.

"Turkey wants ... assurance that the loans, whatever should be made available, will actually be there. They want to ... make sure that the administration won't say later, 'Well, we tried, but Congress didn't approve it,' " says Ilter Turan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University.

US officials say Turkey has gotten their final offer on the issue. "The ball is in the Turkish court. They have heard what we have to offer, and it's up to them now," says a US official, referring to the aid package. Though relations seem to have skidded into unusually tense territory, he said economic and military subcommittees were continuing to try to hammer out various agreements.

On Sunday, two US transport planes landed at the main airbase in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, filled with troops in charge of upgrading Turkish facilities under an interim agreement.

What role the Turkish military would play in case of war could be a far more complex issue. Turkey says the number of Turkish troops in Iraq should be greater than the number of US troops entering Iraq through Turkish territory. Turkey also says these troops should be under Turkish commanders, who would coordinate with the US. The US plan, according to most reports, was for Turkish troops to be under US command.

Figuring out the balance of forces and their coordination is a major point of contention, and is seen by the Turkish military as essential to ensuring that a war does not produce chaos, a Kurdish takeover of oil fields in northern Iraq, and the creation of independent Kurdish state.

Turkey is also worried that a war could set off a refugee crisis, and has requested that Turkey be permitted a 15-mile "buffer-zone" to prevent Kurdish refugees - or separatist guerrilla warfare - from spilling into Turkey. The concept has been condemned by some Iraqi Kurdish leaders. "On the political front, that's the key," says Dr. Turan. "It's not as if compensation is not important, but it is equally important to have an understanding of the division of [military] responsibility."

Deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz recently suggested the US may soon have to move ahead, with or without Turkey, and forgo opening a northern front in Iraq - or perhaps work with a much smaller front than planned. But the possibility of resorting to what critics call unilateralism and the US calls a "coalition of the willing" seems to be ratcheting up anti-US sentiment. The latest polls show that 96 percent of Turks oppose a US-led war in Iraq.

"What you see is a global protest against the US, and it affects the political climate in Ankara," says Mr. Ergin.

But US officials say there is little time left to test the wind. Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies in London, says it is possible for the US to move ahead without Turkey. "Any operation against Iraq could quite easily be launched by bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, and aircraft based in ships in the Mediterranean near Jordan and Israel," he says. "Turkey is a good-to-have, but not a must-have."

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