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Turkey ponders 11th-hour approval of US troop presence

The prime minister said he would seek a second parliamentary vote Wednesday.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2003



ISTANBUL, TURKEY

Turkish officials say they are urgently reconsidering the Bush administration's request to use Turkish soil and airspace to attack Iraq from the north, with the country's new prime minister set to seek parliamentary approval Wednesday.

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Such a vote comes too late for the 4th Infantry Division - spinning its wheels for weeks at its home base in Texas. The division had planned to reach the northern border of Iraq in time for the start of war - presumably sometime after President Bush's 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein expires Wednesday night.

But parliament's approval would open a conduit into Iraq that the US military still desperately wants, defense experts say, despite a diplomatic rift that has led the Bush administration to march toward war without Turkey's help. An 11th-hour approval by Turkey could enable the creation of a small but agile northern front, allowing the US Central Command to dispatch airborne assault forces to coveted areas of northern Iraq. Most crucial of all, the Turkish vote would allow overflight rights for planes launched from US aircraft carriers cruising the Mediterranean Sea - some of which were redirected to the Red Sea.

"It still makes a difference at this stage, and the most important difference is use of Turkish airspace," says Jeremy Binnie, a British defense analyst and the Middle East Editor for Jane's Sentinel, based in London.

Mr. Binnie, speaking in a telephone interview from the United Arab Emirates, says that the light, rapid forces which would be deployed in the initial or secondary stages of an invasion would not be as seriously delayed - due to Turkey's reluctance to meet US requests - as reported. He says that Turkey's military has quietly been allowing preparations so far rejected by political leaders.

Even after the Turkish parliament's March 1 vote against a proposal to base US troops here, Binnie says some US ships docked on the southern coast began unloading equipment and ammunition under an earlier agreement allowing the US to upgrade bases here. "The generals have operated to a certain extent without government approval," he says. "It has proved controversial politically, but it was done because people in the military appreciate Turkey's national interests more than the public does. They were prepared to turn something of a blind eye."

As a result, a US-led invasion of Iraq will be off to what some military officials call a "rolling start" - one that may not allow Bush's war planners to go in with the force they had hoped for, but with enough power to overwhelm forces loyal to Saddam Hussein and keep rival northern Iraqi factions and Turks from clashing over the region's oil assets.

In Ankara yesterday, Bush's special envoy on Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, brought together Turkish officials and representatives of key northern Iraqi factions in an effort to unknot tensions and prevent fighting between different groups of US allies, namely, Turks and Kurds. Those attending the senior-level meeting at the Ankara Palace included the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) official, and chairman of the Iraqi Turkmen Front.

Mr. Khalilzad said that differing parties had agreed to form a commission to address injustices in Iraq. "We will be thinking about mechanisms where Iraqis and Turks are able to remain in touch to deal with issues as they arrive." A meeting with more players - including Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the opposition Iraqi National Congress - is scheduled for today.

Although polls report an overwhelming majority of Turks oppose war in Iraq, Turkey's financial markets and political circles have been reeling from various threats: violent regime change on Turkey's borders in which Ankara has no say, the possibility of Kurdish independence, diminished relations with Turkey's longtime superpower ally, and the loss of a $6 billion aid package from the US.

A turnaround emerged Monday night, when a spokesman for the Turkish president said that a meeting of top leaders concluded that immediate action should be considered in order to protect Turkey's interests. Yesterday, Turkey's new prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said a motion would be brought to the parliament today, but left mention of Iraq out of a long speech focusing on domestic issues.

Waiting until the last possible minute helps Mr. Erdogan - the popular leader of an Islamic political party -- to show his supporters that he did his utmost to keep Turkey out of the war. Had he brought a vote to parliament last week, analysts here say, he would have been viewed as having aided Bush's decision to evict Saddam Hussein from power without seeking approval from the United Nations Security Council.

"Some analysts would have viewed an earlier vote in the Turkish parliament as having encouraged the US president to take the final decision on the Iraqi issue," says Sedat Ergin, the Ankara bureau chief of the Hurriyet newspaper, Turkey's largest daily.

"[Erdogan] can say that since we can't reverse the trend, now it has become imperative to become involved so our national interests are not jeopardized."

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