Turkey readies support for U.S. military action against Iraq

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Turkey's leading political figure began preparing the public Tuesday for a possible war, criticizing the Iraqi government and warning that Turkey could put itself at risk by staying neutral in a conflict at its border.

The dramatic shift by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long emphasized peace with Iraq, came before an expected Friday vote in parliament that could allow the United States to base thousands of troops in Turkey for an invasion of Iraq.

Erdogan, who is expected to become the next prime minister, faces a battle within his own Justice and Development Party to persuade lawmakers to allow the American troops amid widespread public opposition to war.

"The decisions we make for war are not because we want a war, but so we can contribute to peace as soon as possible," Erdogan said in a speech to lawmakers from his party.

Of special concern, he said, is what will happen after a war.

Turkey fears the conflict could lead to the disintegration of Iraq, leading Kurds in the north to declare independence.

That could encourage Kurds in Turkey's southeast, who fought a 15-year guerrilla war against the government.

"If we remain outside the equation at the beginning of the operation, it might not be possible to ... affect developments after the operation," Erdogan said. "And if that happens, Turkey's long-term interests and -- God forbid -- its security might be endangered."

His comments follow U.S. pressure for Turkey to allow use of its territory for a possible invasion of Iraq. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Turkey last month, as did the U.S. general in charge of NATO.

U.S. and Turkish generals agree that opening a second front against Iraq would make it easier to defeat Saddam, but Turkey has been reluctant to approve use of its territory.

Prime Minister Abdullah Gul spoke Tuesday with Vice President Dick Cheney to discuss the U.S. request.

Erdogan is considered a major power broker. For legal reasons he was not allowed to run for parliament, but is expected to run in March and to become prime minister.

"We are regretful to see that the Iraqi administration, which has to take strong steps for peace, isn't taking the necessary steps," Erdogan said. "Unfortunately, we face a situation where the innocent people (of Iraq) are going to pay for their leader's blindness."

Diplomats have repeatedly criticized Gul and Erdogan for not preparing the public for what many see as inevitable Turkish support for a U.S. operation. In the past few weeks, Gul has called for peace and hosted a meeting of Iraq's neighbors that called for avoiding the war.

"It's a brilliant but a terrible U-turn, because it's too late," Ilnur Cevik, editor in chief of the Turkish Daily News, said of Erdogan's comments.

"They should have prepared their own deputies and the public for this," Cevik said. "When you do it at the last moment ... you lose your credibility."

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