Turkish Tangle

While the US and Britain were making final preparations to invade Iraq from the south, a sticky subplot burst onto the scene in the north.

The Turkish government, under new Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, hinted it might ask parliament to reconsider its refusal to allow US troops to transit the country. It looked likely to grant the US overflight rights. This would allow American warplanes and transport aircraft based in the US, Europe, and the Mediterranean to use Turkish airspace en route to Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Turkish Army is moving toward the Iraqi border. Turkey has said that if war breaks out, it will occupy a wide swath of the region inhabited by Iraqi Kurds. Many worry Turkey will go even farther and seize the oil city of Kirkuk.

Turkey has two concerns: First, that Kurdish refugees will flood in, as 750,000 of them did in 1991. Second, that Iraqi Kurds will declare independence, inspiring Turkish Kurds, who fought a 15-year civil war with Ankara, to rise up again.

The US wants to send troops overland through Turkey, but unless the war bogs down, it's late in the game. Much more essential are the overflight rights, without which US planes will have to take circuitous and fuel-wasting routes to reach their targets. But the last thing the US wants is Turkish troops operating independently in Iraq. That would lead to Kurdish resistance, with US forces caught in the middle, or to friendly-fire incidents.

Washington offered Turkey a $15 billion aid package, which it took off the table when parliament refused to allow US troops in. With serious fiscal problems, Ankara desperately needs such financial assistance. US Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that if Turkey cooperates, the US might offer compensation.

It's in everyone's interest for Turkey and the US to work together. Turkey should grant overflight rights at the very least. This would help end the war faster. Turkish troops should enter Iraqi Kurdish areas only under a unified coalition command. And the US should respond with financial aid.

Turkey is eager to join the European Union, but the Europeans are less than enthusiastic. Most recently, Ankara failed to press Turkish Cypriots to accept a UN peace settlement ending the 30-year division of Cyprus. Turkey's responsible behavior in the present crisis would go a long way toward bolstering its case that it belongs in Europe.

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