TURKEY is reassessing its policy toward Iraq and taking steps to normalize relations with the regime. In what many observers see as the first sign of change, the government has invited Iraq's Vice-Premier Tariq Aziz to Ankara. Mr. Aziz, who will visit the Turkish capital June 12-13, told the leading daily Milliyet that the two countries should let bygones be bygones and revive ties. "The relations between neighbors are eternal and should be maintained," he said.
Turkey took a strong stand against Saddam's regime after the invasion of Kuwait last August. It supported UN sanctions and allied war efforts. It stopped all trade with Iraq and closed down the oil pipeline from Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Iskenderun. Also, President Turgut Ozal publicly advocated Saddam's ouster.
But pragmatism, domestic pressures, and economic concerns are moderating this stance.
The Foreign Ministry recently submitted a report to Mr. Ozal recommending and citing several arguments for normalization:
*-An increasingly slim likelihood that Saddam will be overthrown in the near future.
*-Turkey's accumulating revenue losses as the trade embargo continues. (As recently as 1988, Iraq was a leading trade partner for Turkey, which exported $1 billion of goods to Iraq, and imported $1.4 billion worth.)
*-Possible political fallout from any deal Baghdad may strike with the Kurds. (Aside from the influx of Iraqi Kurdish refugees, Turkey has a large Kurdish minority and is keenly interested in the outcome of any autonomy talks.)
In addition, public opinion has recently swung toward the idea that Turkey is coming out a loser in the postwar period. Opposition leaders and newspapers have campaigned for a change of policy, even if it means breaking the UN sanctions and ending cooperation with the coalition allies.
"Turkey has fulfilled all its responsibilities during and after the Gulf crisis," said the influential daily Cumhuriyet. "The same cannot be said about the countries which had promised to give us a hand [economically].... Even the Gulf countries have not carried out their promises of aid.... It is now time to act in accordance with our national interests."
Ozal, official sources say, is unlikely to reverse his policy and end the embargo or dissociate Turkey from the alliance. But he is leaning toward the idea of normalizing relations with Iraq - even if contacts have to be made with Saddam Hussein's regime.
Iraq has made no secret of what it wants Turkey to do - give up the sanctions, open the oil pipeline, resume trade, and cooperate on the Kurdish issue.
Turkey is now willing to grant visas to Iraqi businessmen. Says a leading Turkish businessman, "The moment the sanctions are lifted, everybody will rush to the Iraqi market. The Western countries will come ahead of all others. Why should we lag behind? We must be prepared for the day when the green light is given."
The Ozal administration is also considering reopening its embassy in Baghdad. "We have no direct access to sources in Baghdad," complains a Turkish diplomat, "and that is inconvenient at a time when the Kurdish issue is being discussed there."
If the talks with Aziz go well, officials say Turkey might immediately start selling Iraq some essential agricultural and pharmaceutical products, which are excluded from the sanctions.
Turkey may also campaign for easing or lifting the economic sanctions. Foreign observers here predict this will be Aziz's main request when he meets Ozal.
Diplomats say Washington has no cause for concern. "There is nothing to suggest that Turkey will unilaterally break the embargo," says an experienced US diplomat. "It is up to the Turks to invite whoever they want. This does not go in any way against the wishes of the US government."