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Turkey could furnish a safe way home as US departs Iraq

The Habur Gate – a dusty two-lane checkpoint – may be one of the best routes out.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 18, 2009


Turkey is likely to play a prominent role as the US begins to remove thousands of tons of equipment and supplies from Iraq over the next year or so.

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The American military has been quietly shipping construction materials, food, fuel, and other nonlethal items into Iraq through Turkey using a two-lane commercial border crossing known as the Habur Gate in southeastern Turkey. But as the US considers its options for pulling out of Iraq – and the pace of that redeployment – the route through Turkey may play a conspicuous part, defense officials say.

In addition to Kuwait, and probably Jordan, Turkey would give the US military an alternative exit as it attempts to move thousands of trucks, Humvees, and as many as 120,000 shipping containers back home. "Basically, nothing is off the table," says one American defense official, referring to the role Turkey might play.

The country, which hosts a large US airbase at Incirlik, could also be a major hub for the United States as it ramps up operations in Afghanistan. Earlier this month the government of Kyrgyzstan announced it would no longer allow the US to operate a key base there. That presents a prickly logistical challenge as the US prepares to send as many as 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan.

Today, some 1,000 commercial trucks cross the Turkish border into Iraq every day, many of which carry goods for the US military.

That's a reverse from 2003, when Turkey, which opposed the American-led invasion of Iraq, refused to allow US troops to use the country for the invasion, despite a generous incentive package offered by the US.

The US 4th Infantry Division, led by then-Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, was to have entered Iraq through Turkey but instead mobilized through Kuwait. General Odierno is now senior commander in Iraq and will preside over the massive drawdown of troops and equipment. Relations between the US and Turkey cooled for years until the two allied in response to the growing threat posed by the PKK, the militant Kurdish nationalist group operating along the Turkish-Iraqi border. The US and Turkey created a joint intelligence center in 2007 to help target the militants, and the two countries have worked on other issues concerning Iraq as well.