Turkey OKs base inspections by U.S. but is leery of helping

ANKARA, Turkey -- As tensions grow with the United States, Turkey finally has agreed to allow the American military to inspect its bases for use in a possible war with Iraq.

But the decision to allow inspections to start Monday leaves open whether Turkey will give in to pressure from its most crucial ally to allow tens of thousands of American soldiers to invade Iraq from Turkish soil -- a move that U.S. and Turkish generals agree would likely shorten any war.

The issue is causing friction between Washington and the new government of Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, which must balance its ally's desires against a Turkish public that is overwhelmingly opposed to a war.

U.S. military leaders have been pushing for a final decision on U.S. troops using the bases, concerned that delays are complicating war plans.

"As Ankara delays a decision, it is increasing the risk of damaging relations with the United States," columnist Murat Yetkin wrote in the newspaper Radikal. "Ankara is approaching the point at which it will be unable to further delay."

The question has the government in a bind.

Polls say more than 80 percent of Turks opposes a war with Iraq. In addition, the government fears a war would bring instability on the border with Iraq and cause billions of dollars in losses for tourism businesses, one of Turkey's major industries.

Recession recovery

But Turkey is struggling to recover from its worst recession in decades, and Washington's support was critical in gaining $16 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund. The United States has also been a strong supporter of Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

"If there is not an accord in the near future, tensions could get a lot worse," said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Goodwill in Congress is going to be severely eroded."

"Gul has had an impossible hand to play," Aliriza added.

In a sign of Turkey's uneasiness, Gul visited Iran on Sunday while a trade minister met with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Baghdad to press for a peaceful solution to the Iraq standoff.

"My conclusion is that there is still a chance to avert war," Gul said in Tehran. "Even the U.S. president is not insisting on war."

Gul told Iranian officials that all countries in the region should "make endeavors to avert another regional war, otherwise all the Middle East and Arab states will suffer heavy losses."

Gul has taken his anti-war campaign to Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the past week.

Analysts say that in the end Turkey will have no choice but to give in to some of the U.S. demands and that the visits are aimed at showing the public that Turkish leaders did all they could to avoid a war.

Gul's decision to allow the base inspections came more than a month after U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz confidently told reporters in Ankara that Washington was ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade Turkish bases.

At the time, U.S. officials said they expected the base inspections to begin shortly after Wolfowitz left.

Even now, a decision on using the bases may not come soon. Turkish officials have repeatedly said they won't make that decision until after U.N. weapons inspectors report late this month on progress in their operations in Iraq.

"At the end of the day, Turkey will probably have to make a deal with the United States on this," said Sami Kohen, a columnist with the newspaper Milliyet. "Turkey cannot afford a flat 'no,' but it is very difficult to say a big 'yes."'

Reports in Turkey have said Washington is asking to base as many as 80,000 soldiers in Turkey. The Americans are also looking to use Turkish air bases and to base commandos here.

During the Gulf War, the United States stationed more than 100 strike aircraft at Turkish air bases and apparently a small number of commandos also were in Turkey.

"I don't think Turkey can accept any more assistance than Turkey granted to the Americans during the Gulf War," said Fehmi Koru, a columnist with the Islamic-leaning newspaper Yeni Safak who is close to the new government.

It is widely believed that at a minimum, the government will agree to letting U.S. warplanes and a small number of troops operate out of Turkey.

In a sign that Turkey is likely to eventually agree to at least a limited use of bases, U.S. and Turkish officials have been meeting to discuss a possible economic aid package to compensate Turkey for potential economic losses that international bankers put at between $4-15 billion.

Basing a large number of U.S. troops would be especially difficult for the new government, which is led by the Justice and Development Party, a conservative group with roots in the country's Islamic movement.

"The public is against the war and that public is the constituency of the" party, Koru said.