Turkey signals further delays on U.S. troops

Sunday, March 16, 2003

ANKARA, Turkey -- Ankara's new government signaled Saturday it would wait at least another week before deciding on the deployment of U.S. forces, but Washington appeared to back away from plans to use Turkey for a northern front against Iraq.

A senior U.S. official said Washington's offer to give Turkey $15 billion in economic aid if it allowed the U.S. deployment was now "off the table."

He did not indicate if a new offer could be negotiated if Turkey did allow in the U.S. troops.

In Washington, a senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the offer was withdrawn and that the United States was proceeding with plans that do not include Turkey.

The development came as Zalmay Khalilzad, White House special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, held talks at Turkey's Foreign Ministry.

The $15 billion package of grants and loans had been hammered out in tough negotiations aimed at cushioning Turkey's fragile economy in the event of an Iraq war. But earlier this month the Turkish parliament rejected a resolution allowing tens of thousands of U.S. troops into the country.

The decision strained ties between the NATO-allies.

"It is no secret that we wanted to have access through Turkey," the U.S. official said. "But we always said there would be ways to work around" a refusal by Turkey.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who took over as prime minister Friday, wants his government to win a vote of confidence from lawmakers before deciding whether to make a second attempt for parliament's approval of the U.S. deployment. He indicated Saturday the confidence vote wouldn't come until next weekend.

The U.S. official said Washington was now working to prevent Turkey from sending its troops into northern Iraq.

Turkey says it wants to send thousands of troops into northern Iraq to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state. The United States had accepted to allow Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq as part of a broad memorandum of understanding on the deployment of U.S. troops in Turkey.

Turkey fears that an Iraq war will lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state, which could boost aspirations of rebels who fought a 15-year war for autonomy in southeastern Turkey.

Iraqi Kurdish factions that control an autonomous zone in northern Iraq oppose a Turkish intervention and have warned of clashes in Turkish forces cross the border.

The U.S. official warned that a unilateral Turkish intervention in northern Iraq could lead to clashes with local Iraqi Kurdish forces and "problems with coalition forces."

Khalilzad said Turkish, Iraqi Kurdish, and U.S. officials were due to meet in Ankara next week. Kurdish officials say they will discuss the issue of a Turkish military intervention.

The Pentagon has already ordered some Navy ships out of the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, where they could launch missiles on Iraq without firing them over Turkey.

Erdogan hinted he would resubmit a resolution authorizing the troops to parliament. For now, the United States is seeking permission to use Turkish airspace, but Erdogan also wants parliamentary approval for that, party officials said.

"All these issues will be dealt with after the vote of confidence," Erdogan was quoted as saying Friday by the Anatolia news agency.

U.S. forces continued to unload material in Turkish ports and move the materiel toward the Iraqi border. On Saturday, a civilian freighter arrived in Iskenderun port, where it prepared to unload equipment for the U.S. military.

U.S. forces are working under a previous Turkish parliament resolution authorizing U.S. renovations of Turkish ports and bases.

The daily Milliyet reported Saturday that Vice President Dick Cheney told Erdogan during a phone call this week that the United States was "calling for the last time."

Erdogan told parliament Saturday he would read the government's program to lawmakers Tuesday, Anatolia reported. According to the constitution, a vote of confidence would be on March 23, the news agency said.

The Iraq issue is politically explosive in Turkey, where opinion polls show more than 80 percent of the public opposes a war.

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