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.

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.

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.

The dusty, busy supply line through Turkey illustrates the new ties between the two countries. "It is so much more than that right now," says one Turkish diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "This issue is just a mere proof of us being allies. This is as it should be."

The supply line would give the US a ground exit in northern Iraq that probably would not be as hostile as the two other likely exit points, Kuwait and Jordan.

"Turkey is going to be very instrumental in terms of the withdrawal from Iraq," says Stephen Flanagan, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

US and Turkish officials have tried to kept a low profile regarding the Habur Gate. But in 2007 about 25 percent of the fuel for "coalition forces" entered Iraq through it. The crossing is also a boon to the local economy. Turkish officials say they would welcome an expanded use of the Habur Gate should the US decide to leave Iraq through it.

"Postconflict stability" is in the Turks' best interest, Mr. Flanagan notes. But there is a limit to what they will support the US doing in Turkey, he says. "They don't want to give us a blank check for staging counterinsurgency operations."

Kuwait, on Iraq's southern border, was the main launching point for American forces in the 2003 invasion. The conventional wisdom has been that Kuwait will be the main exit point as American troops and gear are loaded onto ships and airplanes. But there have been concerns that Kuwait could become a chokepoint, and the US has searched for other options.

One of President Obama's campaign pledges was to bring troops home from Iraq within 16 months. Plans based on either a 16-, 19-, or 23-month schedule are now under discussion. It remains unclear how much gear would be left behind and turned over to the Iraqis, but having multiple exit points could allow the military to speed its withdrawal.

US marines stationed in Anbar Province in western Iraq are working with Jordan to determine if the port of Aqaba could be another option for troops leaving western Iraq.

Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, said last month that the US expects to have options. "We don't think it has to be Kuwait," he said.

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