Turkey imperils US war strategy

Washington wants Turks to greenlight a major US troop presence Friday, but relations are at their worst in decades.

A US-led war in Iraq without Turkey as a pivotal ally was once a remote possibility. But months of prickly negotiations between Washington and Ankara are coming to a head and the US is dangerously close to its first setback - one that would force drastic changes in the war plan, military officials say.

Already 30 to 40 US cargo ships are either waiting off the Turkish coast or scheduled to arrive there soon, officials say. The Bush administration says Turkey must decide Friday whether tens of thousands of US troops can be stationed here.

On the surface, the two countries are stuck haggling over dollars. Turkey wants more aid for an economy shattered by the first Gulf War. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday that the US can't double its offer: $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loan guarantees.

But even if Turkey were to get everything on its wish list - including a buffer zone for refugees and Kurdish guerrillas - strong antiwar feelings here might be Washington's toughest obstacle.

"[Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of Turkey's ruling party,] says he still has military and political concerns that aren't satisfied. If that's the case, clearly, kicking in another 4 billion just ain't gonna cut it," says Bulent Aliriza, the director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"It's not just a matter of numbers - it's philosophical," he says of Mr. Erdogan's AK [Justice and Development] Party, a movement rooted in political Islam that won by a landslide in November.

"Many of the people in the AK Party feel that the US is conducting war on the Muslim world, and it may be that no matter what, it wouldn't have worked," says Dr. Aliriza.

Military setbacks

While not a deal-breaker, a refusal by Turkey to allow basing for the Army's Fourth Infantry Division could delay a US assault. It would also likely require US commanders to reshuffle their ground forces, at least temporarily replacing a heavy armored division with lighter forces that lack a similar punch.

"They would have to change their entire strategy as a result," says one US military official.

Some 20 to 30 US cargo ships bound from Texas ports and another 10 headed from Northern Europe are carrying 4.5 million sq. ft. of cargo including tanks, trucks, and other heavy equipment for the 16,000-strong division.

It would take 18 to 21 days to divert these ships from the eastern Mediterranean to Kuwait via the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, with additional delays possible from winter high seas and traffic in the Suez Canal. The roll-on, roll-off cargo ships of the ready reserve fleet travel at about 14 to 16 knots. Once in Kuwait, finding pier space to offload the cargo, and additional staging grounds, could also take time, officials say.

War strategy would also change, as the 4th Infantry Division would be replaced by lighter US ground forces such as Marines or Army airborne infantry that would be flown into northern Iraq.

"There would be some vertical implant of ground troops," says retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "We have looked at the option of using airfields in northern Iraq," he says.

Such forces, however, would lack the heavy armor and firepower intended to spearhead a strike at the Iraqi Army's northern flank as other US troops move in from the south.

A powerful pincer movement is vital to forcing Saddam Hussein to array the Iraqi military to fight on two fronts. In addition, a US ground assault in northern Iraq is crucial to securing Iraqi oilfields and quelling possible infighting among Kurdish factions living in northern Iraq and along Turkey's southern border, according to military analysts and officials.

Still, Turkey's lack of cooperation, while requiring US forces to regroup, would in no way block an Iraq campaign, Pentagon officials and military analysts say. "It's doable, and there are work-arounds," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Wednesday.

Military contingency plans for such a problem already exist, analysts say. "It's not insurmountable, just a shift in tactics and strategy," Admiral Baker says.

Turkish leaders have balked at suggestions that they should, by the end of this week, produce an answer to the Pentagon's request to base troops here - which must by law be backed by a vote in parliament. Turkey's foreign minister said yesterday that a parliamentary vote would not take place till early next week.

"A framework for the agreement we are looking for has not been established," a spokesman said after a meeting of Turkey's Cabinet. "No decision regarding the request [to parliament on admitting troops] has been made."

Turkey's wish list

Turkey has a laundry list of concerns that have not been satisfied by the Bush administration's offer. In short, Turkey wants guarantees - in writing. No to a Kurdish state, or even an ethnic Kurdish regional parliament, in a postwar Iraq. Yes to Turkish military demands to have more troops in northern Iraq than the US does. Yes to Turkey's request to set up a buffer zone there to protect itself from refugees and Kurdish guerrillas.

Turkey also wants a short-term guarantee that Congress will approve any funds the Bush administration promises, and a long-term guarantee that the US military is not planning to hunker down in and around Turkey's borders indefinitely.

Turkish President Ahmet Sezer says that the US must first win international legitimacy before launching any military operation in Iraq, arguing that a second UN Security Council resolution beyond Resolution 1441 be passed. Bush administration officials will seek a vote at the Council next week, requiring 9 out of 15 votes for the measure to pass. But even if it does not, Bush has said, the US may go ahead and launch a war led by a "coalition of the willing."

It's just as likely as not, say senior officials here, that such a coalition won't include Turkey.

"We have our own agenda, and our main objective is to prevent a war from happening at any cost," says Murat Mercan, the deputy chairman of the AK Party and close advisor to Erdogan and Prime Minister Abdullah Gul. He said the current government is not worried that the standoff and the possibility of not reaching an agreement would harm the US-Turkish relationship.

"Things change over times. Countries have ups and downs in their relations," he says in an interview. "If their interests are not in line with our interests, that doesn't mean we cannot cooperate on other issues.

"We want the agreement to be determined, fixed," he says of the sticking points in the negotiations. "We want guarantees, and I think that's also problematic for the Americans because they cannot guarantee things without congressional approval."

For Turkey, mounting pressure

Turkish officials here complain that they are under enormous pressure from the US to reach a decision, and say they cannot understand the Bush administration's rush to start a war against Iraq.

Polls show that 96 percent of Turks are opposed to war, and weekend antiwar protests around the globe had an impact on thinking here about how to proceed with Bush's inclination to use force to unseat Saddam Hussein.

"They didn't expect these demonstrations to be so large," says Hasan Kone, a professor of international relations at Ankara University. He says the US may not appreciate how desperate Turkey's economic crisis is - and that it has to consider its future trading partners. Some 50 percent of Turkish exports go to Europe, he says, where opposition to a war remains high.

"The economic conditions," he says, "are forcing the government to play this kind of game."

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