The Bush administration's window of time for setting up a northern front in a war against Iraq is all but closed, with US officials signaling that a deal to base thousands of troops here - and to provide Turkey billions of dollars in aid - is no longer on the table.
After almost a year of efforts to lure Turkey into allowing the US to stage a ground invasion over the Turkish-Iraqi border and to use Turkish airspace for bombardments, Washington is turning to damage control - trying to prevent Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish forces from clashing in a war that looks increasingly imminent.
"At this point, we have to assume for planning purposes that Turkey is not going to participate as we hoped," says a US official in Ankara. "But we will continue to work with Turkey on other issues," such as humanitarian assistance in case of a refugee crisis, the official said.
A senior Bush administration official says that a long wrangled-over aid package to Turkey totaling $6 billion - which could be used to obtain $30 billion in loans - is now "off the table."
President Bush's special envoy to Iraq and Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, was expected to return to Ankara today to oversee meetings between Turkish officials and key players in northern Iraq, including the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Iraqi Turkomens, whom Turkey worries will be left out of the post-Saddam redistribution of power.
Pending the outcome of yesterday's summit on the Portuguese island of Azores, which looked likely to bring the US, Britain, and Spain closer to declaring war on Iraq, the Bush administration seems ready to shut the door on Turkey's assistance. That, military experts say, would open the door to a longer, bloodier war.
It gives Saddam Hussein the ability to concentrate his forces on fighting a US-led invasion from the south, and could allow him to pursue a scorched-earth policy in the north, setting fire to oil fields.
"This is not cataclysmic, but it has put the plan back," says Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies in London.
Instead of a tank-heavy force, the US will have to rely on lighter units that can be airlifted to the region such as the 173rd Airborne Brigade or an armored cavalry regiment.
"It means that a smaller northern front will be opened," Mr. Heyman says. "It will put some kind pressure on Saddam, but not a lot. Turkey is the main problem at the moment."
The Pentagon had planned to send the Fourth Infantry Divisions into northern Iraq through Turkey. About two dozen cargo ships, carrying the division's tanks, trucks, and supplies remain in the waters off Turkey, Pentagon officials say, where they have been for several weeks. But the troops attached to that equipment are still at their home base of Fort Hood, Texas.
As an alternative to Turkish bases, US forces have reportedly been deployed to airbases in Romania and Bulgaria, but planes or airborne troops in either country would have to fly over Turkey to reach northern Iraq. American warships are reportedly being redeployed from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, in part so their batteries of cruise missiles can avoid Turkish airspace.
Owen Cote, associate director of security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, says the US failure so far to get permission to use Turkish air space is "mind boggling." "It seems like they took it for granted, and it's really coming home to roost," he says.
The Bush administration had hoped to find a more sympathetic ear in Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who became prime minister on Friday after local by-elections. But asked over the weekend about a new vote - parliament rejected the US offer on March 1 - Mr. Erdogan said there were no immediate plans to ask lawmakers to reconsider. Turkish and US sources say that Erdogan might bring an altered version of the plan to parliament within a week.
US officials say they would not rule out Turkish cooperation, perhaps in reduced form, such as by allowing the use of Turkish airspace. A US Department of Defense official says the Pentagon did not expect to meet Turkish resistance on the use of its airspace, since Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey is already used by US and British warplanes to police the northern no-fly zone.
"Doors may be closing, but nothing is shut just yet," says another US official in Ankara.
• Staff writer Seth Stern in Boston contributed to this report.