Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit says Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has not yielded to international pressure to allow United Nations weapons inspectors back into his country. Mr. Ecevit's remarks came after he received a letter from the Iraqi leader.
The Turkish prime minister told reporters Friday that there had been "no change" in Saddam Hussein's behavior. Mr. Ecevit added that Iraq was facing a new threat and that Turkey was doing all it could do prevent that threat.
Mr. Ecevit was alluding to widespread speculation of a possible United States attack against Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein from power. Such speculation has been mounting after remarks by President George Bush that Iraq, along with Iran and North Korea, form an "axis of evil."
Mr. Ecevit, who knows Saddam Hussein personally, had written to him earlier this week urging Iraq to let United Nations weapons inspectors back in, or to face "severe consequences."
Iraq has consistently refused to allow the return of arms inspectors, who pulled out of Baghdad in December 1998, ahead of U.S. and British air strikes intended to force the Iraqi government to comply with U.N. demands.
Turkish officials declined to reveal the exact contents of Saddam Hussein's reply, which came Thursday. But Mr. Ecevit's words on Friday leave little doubt that the Iraqi President had rejected his request.
The support of Turkey, a key NATO member, is seen as crucial to the success of any effort to topple the government in Baghdad.
British and U.S. warplanes continue to use Turkey's Incirlik base to enforce a no-fly zone over Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq declared by the Allies at the end of the Gulf War. Ankara has long opposed U.S. intervention in Iraq fearing that the power vacuum ensuing from Saddam Hussein's fall would enable Iraqi Kurds to formalize the quasi-independence they currently enjoy. This, in turn the argument goes, would encourage Turkey's own restless Kurdish population to resume their own independence campaign.
But Turkey has been progressively scaling down ties with Baghdad ever since the terrorist attacks on September 11, and last month asked the Iraqi ambassador, Farouk Al-Hijazi, to leave the Turkish capital. The Ankara government has also frozen plans to open a second border gate that would have by-passed the Kurdish regions and linked Turkey directly to Iraq.