WHEN Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller accepted an invitation to a cultural festival in Houston months ago, she saw a chance that, while in the United States, she would be able to review the general state of US-Turkish relations with President Clinton.
That was before 35,000 Turkish troops poured into northern Iraq on March 20 in pursuit of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), whose members have waged a violent campaign since 1984 for a separate state in Kurd-dominated southeastern Turkey.
Now, with Turkey unwilling to set a pullout date and its European NATO partners demanding an end to the offensive, Wednesday's meeting between Ms. Ciller and Clinton has become the focus of her US visit, which began last weekend.
The Turkish incursion has confronted the Clinton administration with its latest test in a volatile region of utmost importance to the US. In addition to its proximity to the oil-rich Persian Gulf, Turkey stands at the nexus of the crisis-torn Balkans, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and the restive Middle East.
In dealing with the situation, the administration faces a diplomatic balancing act. It must weigh the concerns of a critical ally against those of its European NATO partners and sensibilities on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are demanding a Turkish pullout.
Above all, the administration must consider its own strategic priorities, including the need for Turkish help in containing the ambitions of neighboring Iran and Iraq. Turkey also provides bases to US aircraft protecting Iraqi Kurds, who rebelled against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the Gulf war. The US-led operation is taking place in the same area in which Turkish troops are pursuing the PKK.
Finally, Washington regards Turkey, with its secular political system and Westward orientation, as a model for Muslim countries and a bulwark against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
''It's a tough set of issues that pull in many different ways,'' says Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former National Security Council official now at Washington's Brookings Institution.
The Clinton administration, labeling the PKK as ''terrorists,'' appeared at first to give unqualified support to the Turkish drive. But it has since adjusted its position in response to the discontent of its European allies and bipartisan anger in Congress. Analysts believe that in their talks with Ciller, Clinton and senior US officials will continue treading a fine line between protecting US-Turkish relations and addressing criticism of the incursion.
They believe the administration will reiterate understanding for the Turkish offensive, as well as sympathy for the massive trade losses Turkey has suffered from the UN economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. But Clinton and his senior officials are also expected to press Ciller for a withdrawal timetable and urge her to push through her parliament a package of ''democratization'' legislation. The package includes a measure that would end a ban on public debate about the denial of linguistic and cultural rights to Turkey's 12 million Kurds, one-fifth of its population.
Leading members of Congress have made it clear they can't support the Turkish incursion. At least seven resolutions demanding a troop pullout have been introduced. ''The Turkish incursion puts at risk thousands of Kurdish civilians living in northern Iraq. To my mind, the Turkish incursion is a violation of international law,'' Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island told the Senate on April 5.
As a prelude to a withdrawal, Turkey is trying to arrange a truce between two rival Iraqi Kurd factions. In return for economic assistance, it wants the factions to join to prevent the PKK from reestablishing bases in northern Iraq from which to resume attacks on Turkish territory. The Clinton administration appears to back the plan.
But Turkish and US officials concede that resolving the feud between the Iraqi Kurd leaders will be extremely difficult. The lack of an alternative plan makes it clear that the Turkish Army may have to stay in northern Iraq longer than anyone wants.