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Talking Turkey

April 4, 2003



Secretary Powell's short trip to Ankara this week provided an important finger in the dike of the US-Turkish relationship, leaking badly after Turkey's refusal to permit US troops to cross its territory en route to Iraq.

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Neither country can do without the other: The United States needs a supply line through Turkey into Iraq, both for US troops and humanitarian aid. A friendly Muslim nation, especially a democracy, is also crucial to repairing the seriously damaged US image in the Arab and Islamic world.

For its part, Turkey desperately needs US financial aid to boost its economy, currently passing through a profound recession. Part of Mr. Powell's message to Turkish leaders was that a proposed $1 billion in US assistance is under threat in a Congress upset about Turkish denial of permission for the troop transit.

With US troops now knocking on Baghdad's southern door, it's hard to know how much Turkey's refusal will affect the duration and conduct of the war. But it certainly complicated life for US and British war planners; an entire US armored division and its equipment had to make an end run to Kuwait, delaying its appearance on the battlefield for a few weeks.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave Powell almost everything the American asked for: a supply route for food, fuel, and nonmilitary shipments; landing rights for medical evacuation flights and distressed warplanes; and removal of red tape holding up UN relief.

The US responded to Turkey's concerns about instability in Iraqi Kurdish areas by agreeing to set up a committee to monitor the situation in northern Iraq. But questions linger about its makeup. Meanwhile, the situation remains volatile, with Turkish military forces on the border.

The Powell trip marks a welcome return of US diplomacy after a period in which the emphasis has been on America's military face. The secretary will need all the skill he can muster to plug the many holes that have opened up in relations between the US and allies like Turkey.

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