ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The American military has begun using an air base in southern Turkey for a massive rotation of troops in and out of Iraq, a U.S. official told The Associated Press on Sunday in a sign of improved U.S.-Turkish relations.
Turkey's granting permission to use its Incirlik air base marks a sharp contrast to last year, when the country -- opposed to the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein -- refused to allow U.S. troops on its territory for the war against its southern neighbor.
It also comes as NATO-ally Turkey is increasingly eager to win favor with the United States amid concerns over Iraqi Kurdish demands for greater autonomy in oil-rich northern Iraq. Turkey, and neighbors Syria and Iran, fear Iraqi Kurds might eventually push for independence and bring instability to their borders.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to raise Turkey's concerns about Iraq during talks with President Bush in Washington later this month.
U.S. presence since 1950s
The use of Incirlik helps the United States as it deals with the largest movement of troops in decades. The military is preparing to send some 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq home over the coming months, replacing them with a more mobile, less heavily armed force of about 110,000.
With Incirlik only an hour's flight from Iraq, the U.S. military has maintained a presence there since the 1950s, making it an ideal location to support the rotations.
There were doubts about the future of the U.S. presence at Incirlik after Turkey's parliament declined last year to let American forces use it or any Turkish territory for the Iraq invasion. The decision, which drove a deep wedge between Turkey and the United States, proved an obstacle for U.S. war planners and disrupted plans for a ground movement from the north.
In a sign of Incirlik's continued significance, the U.S. military recently started using the base to transport soldiers out of Iraq and "a large number" of troops were expected to pass through the base in the coming months, the U.S. official said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Camps in Kuwait and air bases in Germany are also expected to be used in the rotation. Points in Bahrain, Qatar, and Spain could also be used.
Turkish officials could not be reached Sunday. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Friday there was "nothing new" at the base but said Incirlik "has been used and will be used, because the transportation of certain soldiers is more secure through Incirlik."
A U.S. spokesman at Incirlik refused to comment about the rotations Sunday, citing security concerns.
Incirlik has long played a key role for the United States in the region.
The United States based some 50 war planes there after the 1991 Gulf War to patrol a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. It withdrew them, however, last year amid the tension between the two countries.
After the war, Turkey agreed to open Incirlik and other sites to the U.S.-led coalition for logistical support as part of efforts to improve ties with Washington.
Turkey even offered to send peacekeepers to Iraq, but that offer was shelved amid strong Iraqi opposition.
Iraqi Kurds, for example, feared Turkish troops might threaten the autonomy they enjoyed in northern Iraq after the Gulf War. Turkey fought a 15-year war with Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey and fears a Kurdish state at its borders could spark new fighting.
The 1,400 U.S. soldiers at Incirlik -- half as many as before the war -- have been supporting the Iraq operation with tankers to fuel aircraft in Iraq and by delivering supplies to Iraq, a U.S. military official at Incirlik air base said. The base has also occasionally sent troops to help support the Iraq mission, he added.
During a visit to Ankara last month, U.S. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman said the U.S. military wanted to continue using Incirlik as it realigns American troops and bases to better respond to new threats such as terrorism. The realignment is likely to close or scale down many of the permanent bases set up in Germany and other NATO nations to face the Soviet threat.
But U.S. officials said it was too early to say if additional troops might be sent to Incirlik as part of the realignment.