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Turkey Desperate to Prevent War But Wants to be on 'Right' Side - 2003-01-26

Turkey, which neighbors Iraq but is traditionally allied with the United States, faces its biggest foreign policy dilemma in years, as the standoff between Washington and Baghdad moves into a crucial stage. Turkey's two-month-old government is under pressure from the United States to provide support for any U.S. military operation against Iraq, at a time when opinion polls show, more than 80 percent of Turks staunchly oppose a war.

Turkish officials say their government has every reason to fear a war. They say a military confrontation with Iraq will shake their country's frail economy, and stir turmoil among the minority Kurds who live on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border.

But they also say the United States has been an important ally of Turkey for more than 50 years; and they know, Washington is determined to act, if Iraq cannot be convinced to disarm. And even though Turkey is desperate to prevent a war, it is eager to be on the right side, if one breaks out.

So what is Turkey going to do? Does it allow the United States to use its territory to mount an attack on Iraq, or does it continue to look for a diplomatic solution?

Murat Yetkin, a political columnist for the newspaper Radikal, said Turkey has a two-track approach. "One is to try to exhaust all diplomatic possibilities to avoid a clash to end the crisis, without the need of a military option; and, on the other hand, carrying out negotiations and carrying out planning with the United States armed forces to be prepared when the moment comes," he said.

Prime Minister Abdullah Gul has stressed the diplomatic approach, traveling to several Arab countries and Iran, and hosting a foreign ministers' meeting last week in Istanbul that called on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to fully cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors.

At the same time, the government has authorized the Turkish military to begin negotiations with their American counterparts for use of Turkish facilities.

Ilnur Cevik, the editor of the Turkish Daily News, an English-language newspaper, said the reason for this is clear, given the American military buildup in the region. "Turkey is becoming resigned to the fact that the United States is going to attack Iraq. Turkey feels that it has done everything. Turkey has gone to all these Arab countries and Iran, and brought them together at a summit in Istanbul, [and] made declarations but, at the end of the day, the American troops are on the way," he said.

The deal being negotiated would allow the United States to use Turkish airbases and ports, and would also let American ground troops use Turkey as a staging base for a northern offensive against Iraq.

But Dogu Ergil, a political science professor at Ankara University, said the Turks asked Washington to scale back its plans because of concern for Turkish public opinion. "The Turkish army, although putting down some reservations and limiting U.S. demands and requests from Turkey - like, for example, reducing five airbases to three, limiting the use of seaports to two, or limiting the stationing of 80,000 troops to 30,000; Turkey will consent, because it knows it has no other choice," he said.

Turkish officials say the number of U.S. troops that would be allowed to pass through Turkey may even be as few as 10,000.

In keeping with the government's peace rhetoric, Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis has suggested that allowing U.S. troops to use Turkish soil puts additional military pressure on Saddam Hussein to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. However, the deal, as columnist Murat Yetkin notes, has not yet been struck, and still faces some obstacles.

"The ongoing negotiations between the militaries of both countries are about to come to a point of conclusion. That includes the permission to transfer troops via Turkey into northern Iraq [and] also deploying some Turkish troops into Iraq as well. But all of those are up to, first, government, and then parliamentary approval," Mr. Yetkin said.

Prime Minister Gul told U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell Saturday in Davos, Switzerland, that Turkish lawmakers must be convinced that the world supports the use of force against Iraq, and that most want the U.N. Security Council to have the final word.

The Turkish government keeps insisting that it wants to see a second Security Council resolution, before backing military action, a position Turkish Daily News editor Ilnur Cevik said is being reconsidered.

"That's the official position at the moment. But privately, Turkish officials are also saying what do we do if the war starts? We just can't say, 'ah, but you didn't get a resolution.' It's a de-facto situation. What do we do? We plunge in," Mr. Cevik said. Even though Mr. Gul's Justice and Development Party has a two-thirds majority in Parliament, the party has Islamist roots, and there have been hints that it is deeply divided over taking part in a war against another Islamic country.

So how will Mr. Gul and his aides sell the idea that Turkey should join in the war to his party? Ankara University professor Dogu Ergil said it will not be too difficult. "First of all, they will say, 'well, we couldn't curb American belligerence.' Secondly, we have to have a say in the shaping of post-Saddam Iraq. Otherwise, it will be more threatening than the war itself. Post-war chaos is more threatening to Turkey than the status quo. So, people will buy it," he said.

Turkish officials say privately that their country will be hurt whether or not it takes part in the war, but that the price it will pay for being a bystander is greater than the one it will pay as a participant.