US, Turkey wrangle over last pieces of war plan

Turkey could approve US overfly rights Thursday, but N. Iraq remains stumbling block.

US officials have entered a stretch of last-minute maneuvering to secure two missing components of the Bush administration's war strategy: permission to fly over Turkey on the way to a northern assault against Saddam Hussein's forces, and an agreement to keep Turkish troops from unilaterally invading northern Iraq.

The Turkish government plans to bring a motion to parliament Thursday to allow the US to use its airspace, but will not propose a plan to base 62,000 troops here for a ground invasion. Overfly rights in Turkey will make it easier for the US to invade northern Iraq using airborne and special operations troops and support them from the air with attack aircraft and cargo planes.

These forces are likely to be used to initially secure key oil fields in Mosul and Kirkuk, and keep a lid on ethnic violence. But this agreement is a less attractive alternative to the original US plan that called for launching a ground war from bases inside Turkey - though analysts predict Turkey may yet allow troops to transit the country, at least temporarily.

"There's no question we're at more of a disadvantage with the second resolution than we would have been with the first resolution," says William Mitchell, former commander of US forces at Incirlik Airbase. "The reluctance of Turkey is causing some difficulties in our operation - not that they can't be overcome."

The potential for clashes between Turkish and Kurdish forces in northern Iraq remains a concern for the Bush administration, which has in recent days become more vocal in urging the Turkish military to stay out of northern Iraq. Turkey has maintained what it views as its natural right, as a border state, to intervene in northern Iraq if they see Kurdish groups making moves towards statehood or encouraging separatist warfare in southeastern Turkey. The US is warning Ankara that any troops not operating under a single, US-led command will be considered "hostile."

Amid those complications, President Bush's special envoy to the region, Zalmay Khalilzad, met with Iraqi opposition groups here and issued a joint statement on the future of Iraq, promising citizens "full participation" in a democratic, united state. But the gathering's Iraqi Turkomen representative, Orhan Ketene, called the meeting a "failure" because it did not secure a seat for the ethnic Turkomen minority on the leadership council slated to shape Iraq's post-Hussein government. The Turkomens' bitter complaints about being left could even sway some members of parliament to vote against today's motion to allow US use of Turkish airspace.

These are the pieces of a complex puzzle that could remain disconcertingly scattered as the US forges ahead in a war against Iraq without full cooperation of Turkey, its longtime NATO ally.

The US offer of $6 billion in aid to Turkey has officially been withdrawn, sparking a shift in plans to vote for a second time to base tens of thousands of troops here. Leading Turkish officials say that they will ask the parliament to vote on the use of airspace only because they understand this to be the current US priority. But while Turkish officials suggested that they might ask for parliamentary approval to put US ground troops here later - after first winning permission for airspace rights - Bush administration officials are suggesting that option is no longer relevant. "The time period for the aid deal had passed. From the beginning, that aid was contingent on full military cooperation, and at this point, that has not happened," says a US official here.

With permission to use Turkish airspace, US carrier-based warplanes and cruise missiles currently in the Mediterranean Sea will be able to take a more direct route over Turkey rather than a circuitous one from the Red Sea over the Saudi desert.

According to Dr. Mitchell, now a professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, an overfly agreement would probably allow the US to use 60 attack aircraft previously assigned to patrol the northern no-fly zone over Iraq from Incirlik to be used offensively. Under a current agreement, those planes can only release weapons when fired upon.

It's also the most direct way to send cargo ranging from food to bombs from American military bases in European countries such as Italy, Romania, and Bulgaria. "It's very useful from both a war-fighting and resupply standpoint," says Christopher Hellman, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

The troops of the 4th Infantry Division, a tank-heavy force intended to launch an attack on the north from Turkey, remained at their Ft. Hood, Texas base as of yesterday morning and their equipment on ships near Turkish ports. In the meantime, the US will likely rely on airborne and special operations troops to start a land assault. The 173rd Airborne Brigade's 1,800 Italy-based troops could parachute in or the 101st Airborne Division now deployed in Kuwait could helicopter up from the south, says Barry Posen, a security studies professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. A limited amount of armor could be airlifted into Kurdish controlled air strips.

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