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Turkey's Leaders Downplay Rift Within NATO Over Defense Preparations - 2003-02-10

Turkish leaders are seeking to play down a dispute within the NATO alliance over preparations to defend the country against Iraqi attack in case of a war.

Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said the issue is about "timing" and not "essence."

He spoke to reporters after the Turkish government formally asked the NATO military alliance to debate measures to defend Turkey against possible attack by Iraq.

The Turkish request, based on Article IV of the NATO founding treaty, came after France, Germany and Belgium vetoed a U.S. request for the alliance to formally develop a plan to increase Turkey's defenses.

Officials say such a plan would have called for the deployment of AWACS command and surveillance planes, Patriot missiles, and anti-chemical and anti-biological warfare teams.

The three countries say it is premature to develop a formal plan because it would hamper ongoing efforts to resolve the Iraq crisis through diplomatic means. Fifteen other NATO members were prepared to begin making plans to increase Turkey's defenses, but NATO rules require unanimity before such steps can be taken.

Turkey's chief ally, the United States, has sharply criticized the three countries for their stand.

Turkey, the NATO alliance's only predominantly Muslim member, is set to play a key role in a possible war against Iraq.

Turkey has already authorized U.S. military technicians to upgrade several key ports and bases for possible use in a conflict with its Arab neighbor. And the Turkish parliament is poised to vote on a second measure on February 18 that would allow the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Turkey.

Iraq has said any country that allows the use of its territory would be viewed as an aggressor. Turkish officials fear that Iraq could retaliate with long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction.