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US Airbase in Turkey Prepared to Fight Global Terrorism - 2002-06-04


Since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, U.S. and British war planes from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey have been patrolling the skies over northern Iraq - protecting the country's Kurdish minority from Saddam Hussein. The base is also bracing itself for a possible role in the coalition's fight against the Iraqi leader and global terrorism.

From the outside, Incirlik Air Base, which is located near the southern city of Adana and jointly occupied by Turkey, Britain, and the United States, hardly looks like a place worried about an imminent terrorist attack.

Hundreds of local merchants, hawking everything from $1 T-shirts to exquisitely-made Persian rugs from their street-side shops, clog the road to the main gate. In the so-called "alley," American and British soldiers walk around freely, chatting with the merchants and relaxing in the town's numerous bars and restaurants.

But the man responsible for the well-being of more than 7,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel at Incirlik, Colonel Marc Felman, said the calm atmosphere is hiding growing apprehension around the base. Colonel Felman said, "The fact of the matter is we do have very real and known threats. We have known al-Qaida operatives in Turkey. There are several different indigenous terrorist-type of organizations here."

Colonel Felman's primary job is to support the men and women who conduct Operation Northern Watch, which enforces the no-fly zone over northern Iraq.

But since the terrorist attacks in the United States last September, he has also had to look after thousands of additional people and equipment moving through Incirlik in support of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

Stuart Haire, who oversees cargo traffic out of Incirlik, said until recently, more than 30 planes a day loaded with troops and supplies were flying from Turkey to Afghanistan.

He said he is not surprised to hear that al-Qaida terrorists may see the base as a particularly good target. "We had an initial surge," he said, "where the president [Bush] wanted to get a large number of troops in and build up an infrastructure in pursuit of al-Qaida. Now, we've got that infrastructure in place and now I see us in a sustainment role."

Both men have a good reason to worry about terrorism. U.S. officials say recent intelligence from northern Iraq indicates that several Kurdish villages in the east near the border with Iran are now in the hands of some 700 to 800 local Islamic militant fighters and Arab fugitives from Afghanistan.

According to one of the leaders of the Kurdish faction Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the local militants, who call themselves Ansar Al Islam or Supporters of Islam, are affiliates of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. He said the militants are currently waging a terror campaign inside PUK-held territory.

PUK, an ally of the United States which has controlled much of northeastern Iraq since 1991, has publicly suggested that Ansar Al Islam is being supported by Saddam Hussein as well as Osama bin Laden. Ansar is believed to be led in part by a suspected Iraqi intelligence agent named Abu Wa'el.

Such reports have deeply alarmed the Bush Administration. Although the president denies he has a war plan for Iraq, he has also made it clear that he wants to topple Saddam Hussein from power before he can stockpile weapons of mass destruction and share them with anti-Western terrorist groups.

Since international arms inspectors were forced to leave Baghdad four years ago, the West has been unable to effectively monitor the Iraq's weapons development program. But the Bush Administration, which has labeled Iraq part of an "axis of evil", believes Saddam Hussein is already armed and extremely dangerous.

The commanding general of Operation Northern Watch, Edward Ellis, said so far, he has not been given any orders to prepare for changes in the 11-year-old mission. "I can tell you that no one has called me and said, "Go strike a blow for nine-eleven [September 11]. It's Northern Watch business as usual," he said.

Business-as-usual not only means using fighter jets to keep Iraqi military planes out of allied-controlled air space over northern Iraq. It also means using highly-sensitive equipment aboard communications and surveillance planes to monitor Saddam Hussein's activities on the ground.

Meanwhile, Colonel Felman said he is working with his Turkish counterpart to beef up base security as much as possible. "We have Turkish gendarme and Turkish police who share the perimeter defense," Colonel Felman continued. "There are plainclothes and ambush teams already in place to watch."

While Turkey wholeheartedly supports Operation Northern Watch, it is not clear how much the government in Ankara would support the United States in a war against Saddam Hussein.

It has expressed deep concern that getting rid of the Iraqi leader could galvanize Kurds in Turkey to unite with those in Iraq and create pressure for an independent Kurdish state. Turkey also says the Gulf War has cost the country $30 billion so far in lost trade with Iraq because of international sanctions against its neighbor.

During the war, Turkey allowed the U.S. military to use Incirlik as a crucial staging ground for its troops. This time, Turkey may not be so accommodating unless it receives sufficient assurances from the United States that Saddam Hussein will be the only casualty in an all-out war.