Turkey has agreed to allow a U.S. military survey team access to Turkish bases and ports in order to assess their possible use in a war against Iraq.
Turkish officials confirm that the U.S. team have been allowed in principle to survey several Turkish air bases in eastern and south-eastern Turkey as well as at least two ports in the southern Mediterranean. Officials here declined to specify why the U.S. team would be conducting such inspections and would only say that it was a "technical issue."
Western diplomats said the decision was very positive, but added that it did not commit Turkey to participation in a war against Iraq.
Turkey played a pivotal role in the 1991 Gulf War when it opened its bases to U.S. and British warplanes launching bombing raids against Iraqi targets. It is widely expected to do so once again in the event of another war. But this time, Washington is asking Turkey to allow the deployment of some 80,000 U.S. ground troops. Those troops are expected to cross through Turkish territory into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq opening a second Northern front against Saddam Hussein's forces.
But Turkish military leaders and politicians have expressed reservations about the presence of U.S. troops in Turkey. They are particularly concerned about what possible role U.S. forces may play in shaping the future of Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. Turkey's chief fear is that under U.S. protection the Iraqi Kurds will be allowed to form their own independent state, one that would serve as a magnet for Turkey's own restive 12 million Kurds.
The Bush administration has repeatedly dismissed such claims, saying it is committed to preserving Iraq's territorial integrity
Recent opinion polls here show nine out of 10 people are opposed to Turkey's participation in a war against Iraq.
That is one of the arguments being put forward by Turkey's newly elected government formed by the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party as it resists U.S. pressure to make a decision about Turkey's role in a possible war against Iraq.
But analysts say that public opinion counts for little on issues of national security. And the Turkish parliament, regardless of its ideological makeup, almost always acts in line with recommendations from the Turkish military.
Chief of General Staff General Hilmi Ozkok made his views clear to reporters Wednesday, saying, "efforts at a peaceful resolution should continue until the end."
Turkey says it cannot commit itself to any war effort until the United Nations weapons inspectors issue their final report on Iraq at the end of this month and the U.N. itself authorizes the use of force against Baghdad.
Turkey also has powerful economic arguments against the war, saying it lost as much as $80 billion (US) in foregone trade with Iraq because of U.N. sanctions slapped on Baghdad following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
A defiant Ankara is sending its trade minister to Baghdad Friday together with some 300 Turkish businessman seeking deals under the U.N.'s oil for food program, under which Iraq is permitted to purchase non-military use goods out of proceeds from its oil sales.