In Turkey, key base preps for US troops

Turkey is expected to vote Thursday to allow more than 60,000 US troops on its soil.

This tidy base, near Turkey's easternmost Mediterranean port, boasts college-campus comforts: American fast-food, a sports bar, and a bowling alley. But its top amenity - a nine-hole golf course - may also prove the most valuable.

With Turkey's parliament expected to vote Thursday to allow 62,000 US troops to be stationed here and at other bases around the country, American soldiers will likely be bedding down in the fairways.

Valued especially for its capacity to absorb thousands of troops,

Incirlik has hosted the US Air Force's 39th Wing for more than three decades. The base currently houses 4,500 US service personnel and families, and can rapidly expand its capacity to about 20,000 troops, according to a former base commander.

"We could max out quite a lot," says Col. Mark Felman, commander of the 39th Wing. "Right now, people here feel a sense of importance about what they're doing."

Thousands of US troops and accompanying military machinery are already waiting on ships off the coast off Turkey. If an agreement is passed in parliament, the largest and longest-standing American military presence here will be faced with the challenge of shuttling them into position, weeks behind the Pentagon's schedule to prepare for a potential war against Iraq.

Naval ships carrying armor, equipment, and ammunition for the US 4th Division can be expected to unload here. Logistics planners will then move troops and gear into place for an operation, a task that could take anywhere from 6 to 10 days, says Col. William A. Mitchell (US AF, ret.), who served as Incirlik's base commander during the Gulf War.

Officers here are preparing to ferry combat troops from the 4th Infantry Division toward Turkey's border with Iraq, which lies some 400 miles to the east. Already, 522 US military vehicles are waiting in Iskenderum, the eastern port city, for permission to advance toward the Iraqi border.

"Incirlik is a very important location in that a northern front is so important, because the pressure [on Saddam Hussein] will be in Baghdad, and it will be harder for him to fight if it's coming at him from the north and south. It's the pincer approach," say Dr. Mitchell, who is now a professor of international studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

"We can ship them over from the docks at Iskenderun, and then by convoy take them to the southeast and Diyarbakir, or to Batman for the Air Force," says Mitchell in a telephone interview. "After being on those ships for a long time, the troops would need a little R & R before they go on to combat - a transitioning period in some kind of tent city complex - and then head into northern Iraq, which is what's probably happening at this moment." Four US military ships have unloaded at Iskenderun, the eastern port city, in the past 10 days, according to Turkish media reports.

Incirlik's bedding capacity was expanded during the Gulf War, but it has also served as a major staging area during peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. The base was used to provide relief during the 1988 Armenian earthquake and to house Canadian peacekeepers at the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980s. Today, the base hosts Operation Northern Watch, whose pilots strike at Iraqi military targets when they violate the northern no-fly zone established after the Gulf War.

US facilities at the base also include a blast and chemically hardened hospital facility, set up to treat troops exposed to chemical warfare. At the hospital, most of which lies four flights underground, troops have been holding drills to prepare for the possibility of the real thing - treating victims in a series of glass decontamination chambers that look like enormous bread bins.

The prospect, however remote, that such facilities could be put to use for the first time has at least some troops uneasy about what the weeks ahead could bring.

"It's a little stressful. I'm ready to go home," says Airman Ashley Elias, a 21-year-old from Tennessee who was only supposed to be on assignment for 45 days when she volunteered for duty in the region last November. Instead, her tour has been extended to six months - a typical story for many military personnel overseas.

"My parents are very proud of me, but they're worried about war breaking out," says Elias, as she checks the IDs of troops entering the morale tent - a place that makes life in "Tent City" more livable. It includes a large Internet cafe, and opportunities to snatch a piece of home away from home: a paperback, a rental video, a box of Teddy Grahams.

"Having e-mail helps, and I talk by phone almost everyday," adds Elias, a round-faced, tow-headed woman who left her husband, also an airman, back on base in the US. "I try not to watch the news too much because it just makes things worse."

General procedures for readying a base for war normally dictate that family members be sent home to make space for incoming troops.

But Incirlik has so much potential for expanding its current tent city, a neat grid of comfortably sturdy heated tents, that evacuating dependents might only be optional. Still, some officers are already grappling with difficult decisions about whether to send their children back to the US.

Technical Sergeant Jacolyn Wade says that her son and daughter, 15 and 14, have been growing worried about staying here, given the possibility that Saddam Hussein could train a weapon on this, the most obvious symbol of Turkish-US cooperation.

"They became even more nervous when there was news that the families would have to leave and there might be a war," says Ms. Wade, who is thinking of sending her kids home to Delaware.

Wade, who has been posted here for eight months, recently married a Turkish man from nearby Adana. At the home of her in-laws, she faces a new family which accepts her - an African-American US Air Force officer - but is far less enthusiastic about the military she belongs to going to war against neighboring Iraq. "My husband's view is that it will cause a lot of problems for the Turks," she says. And her view? "I don't know if we should go now," she says. "But we will do what we have to do, first and foremost."

Weeks of indecision and bitter international debate over the Bush administration's plans to overthrow Saddam Hussein have left some feeling tentative about their mission.

"You want someone to make a decision somewhere, so you know what's happening, so you don't keep second-guessing yourself," says Capt. Aaron Dunn, a logistics planning officer charged with the nitty-gritty of getting soldiers and supplies from A to B. "It's kind of like, 'Are we doing it or are we not?' "

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