Turkey's domestic gridlock hurts US plan

The AK Party says it had no plans for another vote on US troop presence.

The political battle to base more than 60,000 US troops in Turkey may not be over yet.

After Turkish lawmakers failed to muster enough votes Saturday to approve a proposal, a spokesman for the ruling party said Sunday at press time that no current plans exist to seek another vote. Although parliament could raise the issue again in Tuesday's session, the entire matter might be postponed another week, when a local bi-election could pave the way for the ruling party's leader to become prime minister.

The crisis, say diplomats here, is as much a reflection of a political deadlock between the newly elected Justice and Development (AK) Party and Turkey's powerful military, as it is a split over whether to collaborate with the US.

The delays plunge into doubt the Bush administration's plans for a northern front in any war to disarm Saddam Hussein. After months of negotiations with US officials, the plan the AK Party presented to parliament on Saturday was met with a 264-250 vote in favor and 19 abstentions - three votes short of a majority of those present, which is required to pass the motion.

More than 100 of AK's members voted with the opposition, in a move that stunned both US officials and senior AK party politicians who thought that their rank-and-file members would put party fealty over their opposition to a war in Iraq. The agreement promised to bring Turkey $15 billion in loans and grants as well as a role in determining the future of a post-Saddam Iraq.

Also this weekend, the Arab League, meeting in Egypt, rejected any form of Arab participation in a US-led war against Iraq.

The US strategy in Iraq, based on the Bush administration's conviction that Saddam Hussein is hoodwinking inspectors and continuing to amass weapons of mass destruction, is essentially ensnared in a domestic Turkish powerstruggle.

On one level, tensions exist between the military, the guardian of Turkey's secular interests, and the AK Party, elected four months ago and founded by members of a disbanded Islamic party. Turks have been wondering how long it would be before they would clash - presumably over issues of separation of religion and state.

Several analysts here now say that the military, which guides and sometimes outright intervenes in politics, wants AK to shoulder responsibility for approving an unpopular US troop deployment here. "We felt we are alone in this," acknowledges Mevlut Cavusoglu, a parliamentarian and founding member of the AK Party. "It's a big responsibility, and everyone has to share in it."

Western officials here say that is exactly what Turkey's powerbrokers are loathe to do. "The decision on Iraq is one that no one wants to take," complains a Western diplomat in Ankara.

Others say the AK Party, aware that more than nine out of 10 Turks say they oppose a war against Iraq, keeps trying to throw the ball into the military's court. On Friday, it turned to Turkey's National Security Council in an attempt to show the public it was forced into cooperating with the US by the military.

"The leadership of the party wanted to use the military as an excuse," says a senior political analyst in Ankara. "Then, the party could approach people and say, 'We're against it but the military wants it, so what can we do?'"

There is also a level of inner-party tensions at play. The AK Party is led by the charismatic Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who would be prime minister if legal barriers thrown up by the Turkish establishment had not prevented him taking office. He could be eligible for holding office in less than a week, however, when local bi-elections in Siirt would give him a seat in parliament. Meanwhile, the government is run by the party's No. 2, Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, who insiders say is more dedicated to the idea of preventing a US-led war.

The fact that it is not clear who will be leading the country a month from now has only augmented the level of instability in the AK Party. Although both men may have been surprised by the huge number of party members who voted against the government's deal with the US, observers say that neither of them was fully dedicated to convincing members of Parliament to support the measure. Some members of the cabinet who were opposed to it even expressed pleasure that the motion failed.

"This was a silent coup within the party," says Sedat Ergin, the Ankara bureau chief of Hurriyet, Turkey's largest selling daily newspaper. Ergin notes that the members have turned out to be less homogenous than expected. "It's an eclectic structure and Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gul were not really able to read the currents in the party."

Meanwhile, lack of trust over US intentions prevails. Though the US has ensured Turkey that it supports a united Iraq, Turks remain wary. "The three sides," the Americans, the Turks, and the Iraqi Kurds, "do not really believe each other," says Mehmet Ali Kislali, a columnist for the center-left newspaper Radikal.

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