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Turkey's Top Leaders Shift Policy, Support  Possible War Against Iraq - 2003-02-04

Turkey's top politician warned lawmakers that if they do not back the United States in a possible war against Iraq, Turkey will risk not having a say in shaping the future of its Arab neighbor. Addressing members of the ruling Justice and Development Party in the Parliament, Party chairman Tayyip Erdogan said war against Iraq now seems all but unavoidable.

He told the lawmakers if Turkey remains outside the equation at the beginning of the operation, it might not be able to affect developments after the operation. Mr. Erdogan warned this would have a negative impact on Turkey's long-term interests and security.

Mr. Erdogan's comments came as the country's Prime Minister, Abdullah Gul, prepared to seek parliamentary approval for the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops in Turkey. They would be used to create a northern front against the forces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Other forces are expected to invade Iraq from Kuwait, in the south.

Turkey has been delaying a decision on the troop deployment because of strong public opposition to a war against Iraq. Opinion polls show that nine out of ten Turks are opposed to their country's participation in a war. Many members of the Justice and Development Party, who began their political careers in an overtly pro-Islamic party, are also against the war.

The Bush administration has been pressing Turkey, a key NATO ally, to come up with a decision. The newly elected Ankara government has shown some signs of willingness to go against public opinion and support the war.

Last month it allowed a team of U.S. military technicians to survey several air bases and ports to assess their possible use in a war. Now Turkey's government is set to ask the parliament to allow U.S. technicians to upgrade those facilities before a possible troop deployment. A vote on that issue could come in the Turkish parliament by Friday.

But Turkish officials say a vote on whether to permit the deployment of U.S. troops can only take place after the three day long Muslim feast of the Sacrifice holiday, which begins next Tuesday. U.S. officials say that would be too late for military planning purposes and they want the government to secure parliamentary approval this week.